After 25 wins last season and a run to the NCAA tournament, a lot of people expected the Warriors to take a step back as the team lost seniors Joe Cucci and Chris Barton, along with their star Stephane Da Costa, who left college for the NHL after his sophomore season.
Instead, the team looks as strong as ever with early wins over Maine, Army, Northeastern and UConn. They are ranked at No. 9 in this week's USCHO.com national poll and remain the only undefeated team in Hockey East. Head coach Mark Dennehy talked a bit about his team's philosophy after defeating Northeastern 4-1 last Friday.
"They don't keep time of possession in hockey, but for us it's a big stat," Dennehy said. "We really try to play the game below the tops of the other team's circles and if you think about it, you cycle the puck a couple times, you're in your zone 20-30 seconds, you're really expending a lot of energy, it's tough to then get the puck and go on offense.
"What usually ends up happening is they get the puck, they gain the line, dump it and change, which doesn't enable them to get on the forecheck so if you do a good job of protecting the puck down low and cycling it, it's going to be tough for the other team to get in a rhythm."
Dennehy's concept of time of possession in hockey is a bit unorthodox, but it makes sense. The more time an opposing team spends in its own zone, the less time they can focus on attacking. The next question would then be, how does he expect his team to keep the opponent on their heels throughout the game? The answer, coming from Dennehy's players, is hard work.
One of the team's leaders, Mike Collins, who as a freshman led all Hockey East rookies in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points last season, simplified his coach's strategy even further.
"We play hard," Collins said. "The hardest-working team is going to come out on top 99 percent of the time. We just stay calm and play the game, play hard, and play smart."
Collins is expected to be a big factor offensively for the Warriors in the coming years, and Dennehy said his breakout performance last year didn't come by accident.
"He's got real good puck poise," Dennehy said. "He's got a real good hockey sense and I think he's an underrated skater. When he can get the puck in the slot, I don't know if there's anybody on our team that finishes the way he does."
Merrimack is also known for playing a physical game. Junior defenseman Kyle Bigos, a native of Upland, Calif., who measures 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, isn't afraid to lead the way in that department.
"We've got a lot of guys that I think are physical and strong," Dennehy said. "It's something that we ask from all of our players. [Bigos] is probably the strongest and most physical and he's got those lovely California hands that he sometimes tries to use too much, but he’s got great poise. I'm happy for the shape he's in, he's probably in the best shape since I've known him athletically."
Bigos also weighed in with his own interpretation of the team's mantra.
"I think determination is the winning factor," Bigos said. "Going out and finishing our checks and playing as physical as we can is definitely a key factor. It’s basically who wants it more, who has more will to go out there and do it."
The philosophy has certainly worked through the first month of the season, and with one of the best goaltenders in Hockey East, Joe Cannata, as their backstop, the Warriors are hoping to continue to be at the top of the conference all year.
Photo courtesy of Merrimack Athletics