Hockey East: Regular season openers for Merrimack, Maine see ECAC opponents tonight

While the majority of this weekend's Hockey East contests are exhibitions against top Canadian programs, Merrimack and Maine play the first two regular-season games tonight against rival ECAC Hockey foes.

The Warriors, picked to finish eighth in the league's preseason coaches poll, open the campaign with four straight road contests away from North Andover's cozy Lawler Arena, beginning with a tough assignment at Union tonight at Messa Rink in Schenectady, N.Y. MC is 7-2-2 in its last 11 season openers and also holds a 19-7-3 historical mark against the Dutchmen.

Junior captain Jordan Heywood anchors the Warriors' back line and has played in all 76 games in his two seasons wearing the Blue and Gold, while classmate Mike Collins is the team's top returning scorer after a 25-point season in 2011-12. Collins, a Boston native and Catholic Memorial product, seeks to return to his freshman form when he led all Hockey East rookies with an even 30 points, including 13 goals.

The main concern for the Warriors entering the new year is in goal as superstar Joe Cannata was lost to graduation. The Wakefield, Mass. native was a workhorse throughout his career, playing in at least 22 games during each of his four seasons. Cannata, who now holds professional rights with the Vancouver Canucks, finished his final year with the nation's 15th-best goals-against average at 2.18 and was also among the top 20 in save percentage.

Union enters the season as the nation's fifth-rated team, according to USCHO.com and is set to defend the ECAC league title and their first-ever NCAA Frozen Four appearance. The Dutchmen will again face the Warriors and then host Vermont during this December's Catamount Cup at Gutterson Fieldhouse, but have not entertained a Hockey East foe at Messa since falling to UMass in Dec. 2009. They have not enjoyed much success against the conference with a less-than-stellar 31-76-9 mark.

En route to appearing in Tampa in April, Union, which is led by second-year head coach and Providence College alum Rick Bennett, defeated UMass-Lowell to end its Cinderella run in the East Regional title game at Bridgeport, Conn. Last season against the Warriors, Union extended its unbeaten streak to six games with a 3-1 win in North Andover for its first win over a then-top five opponent since Jan. 28, 2011 (Yale).

On the far northern end of New England, the Maine Black Bears will begin to answer some of their own questions this evening as they host the rival Quinnipiac Bobcats at Alfond Arena. Maine was picked to finish fifth by the Hockey East coaches as it returns 17 letterwinners from a season ago, despite losing five of the team's six leading scorers.

Leading goal scorer Joey Diamond does return after a stellar junior season, which included 25 goals and 47 points. The Long Beach, N.Y. native was fourth in all of the NCAA with 0.68 goals per game last season. Fellow New Yorker and classmate Mark Nemec, who posted five assists in a career-best 40 games last season, will join Diamond as the second current Black Bear to play his 100th-career game as he takes to his familiar blue line spot on Saturday.

Junior Dan Sullivan returns to the net after a 22-11-3 season in 2011-12 and will look to backstop the Black Bears

On the opposing side, the Bobcats were picked to finish fourth by the ECAC media and coaches, while receiving votes in both national polls. QU is led by consensus ECAC preseason first-team member Connor Jones, who shared the team's Most Valuable Player honor with twin brother Kellen.

Additionally, UMass-Lowell opens the exhibition season against Toronto at 4 p.m. in the Tsongas Center, while Boston College, New Hampshire, and Vermont scrimmage at 7 p.m.

Follow @JoshuaKummins on Twitter for Hockey East news all season long.

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