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College Hockey Notebook: Merrimack's New Look, Both On And Off The Ice

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After years of frustration, Merrimack College is making noise within Hockey East, defeating and holding tight with many of the league's longtime stalwarts. Plus, Hockey East's Top Five Teams.

Merrimack's Stephane DaCosta is leading a sea change for the Warriors, who have experienced seasons of frustration in Hockey East. (Photo courtesy of Hockey East)
Merrimack's Stephane DaCosta is leading a sea change for the Warriors, who have experienced seasons of frustration in Hockey East. (Photo courtesy of Hockey East)

Lawler Arena is an unassuming place to watch a college hockey game. Seated on a winding road past a few small residence halls and surrounded by trees, you literally find yourselves skating to the entrance on a dark wintery evening. Until recently, attendees found themselves on wooden benches, bundled up from the cold of the rink.

Multiple concession stands, thousands of seats, wide concourses are for the pampered – Lawler Arena is about the ice, the game, and not the amenities. Watching a game in the smallest arena in Hockey East (capacity's at about 3000) is purely about the game, not the fan cams.

But in this small rink in the middle of Andover, MA, Merrimack College has been building a hockey team that is finally making noise in Hockey East. Last Friday afternoon, the Warriors defeated defending national champion Boston College, 5-3, clinching the season series for Merrimack for the first time since 1996-97. The post-Thanksgiving victory gave Merrimack the third straight Lawler Arena win over the Eagles, dating back to last season.

While Merrimack closed the holiday weekend losing to the nation’s No. 5 ranked team, University of New Hampshire, the overall success of Thanksgiving week couldn’t be diminished for the Warriors. They found themselves ranked in the national USCHO.com/Coaches Poll for the first time, at No. 18, and repeated the ranking this Monday. Sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa was named Hockey East Player of the Week after a four-point weekend, tallying a goal and two assists in Friday’s BC game, and adding another goal against Harvard Tuesday evening. Da Costa seemed snakebitten of late, only to see some of his many shots materialize over the weekend.

It is not just Da Costa leading the Warriors’ success, but the play of junior goaltender and Vancouver prospect Joe Cannata, who has been largely overlooked for most of his career. After Tuesday evening’s win against the Ivy League's Harvard, Cannata has an overall save percentage of .923, good for 13th in the nation and second in Hockey East.

Merrimack’s toughness is also catching looks nationwide – while occasionally bordering on the edge of dirty (especially in their early November home and home series against Boston University), the team is working to shed their perpetual underdog status. They have become especially adapt at the penalty kill, sitting fifth in the nation having killed 66 of 74 power plays thus far.

Merrimack’s biggest test this weekend is their five-games-in-eight-days stretch that they are currently in the midst of. They play a home-and-home series against Northeastern this weekend – which, if they win both, would clinch them another season series win, and put them in excellent position to remain in the top tier of the Hockey East standings as they enter winter break.

And in that month off for holidays and exams, the unassuming little arena that currently hosts one of the most dangerous hockey teams in Hockey East, will have more of a facelift. New seats will be installed, work being done even during this weekend’s game against Northeastern.

Only fitting, because if the Warriors stay hot, there will be more and more fans in those seats.

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Kat's Hockey East Top 5

1) University of New Hampshire – Great goaltending from junior Matt DiGirolamo and a balanced scoring attack has UNH jumping to number one in my rankings. They broke BU’s undefeated streak, held off very hot Merrimack, and will take on two of the weaker teams in the conference this weekend – UMass Lowell Thursday night and Vermont on Sunday.

2) Boston University – You won’t find a Terrier in the top five of the Hockey East scoring leaders – they have Alex Chiasson, Dave Warsofsky, and Sahir Gill tied at ninth. While it may indicate many contributors on the team, as of late it’s a statistic of their scoring frustration. They are also second to last in the league in scoring in the third period, which makes sense given their five ties. So many Terrier shots are going wide, and forwards are taking too long to pass or shoot, that one gets the sense that the team is playing Plinko, not hockey.

3) Merrimack – As I mentioned above, the Warriors are hungry, Da Costa has found his footing, and they overcome their penalty tendancy by having one of the countries’ best penalty kills.

4) Boston College – Head coach Jerry York told USCHO’s Jim Connolly this week that consistency and effort has been a problem with Boston College. However, the Eagles are not far off their 2009-10 totals – through the winter break last year, the Eagles were 10-3-2. Right now, with a home-and-home against BU standing between them and break, they are 9-5-0. This weekend’s series will show the league and the country what tone BC will take the remainder of the season.

5) Maine – Maine’s Thanksgiving off-week may have left them off the radar of some college hockey fans, but they still have four league games before the break. For Maine, they will need those games against Providence, UNH, and UMass to solidify their status within the league – the talent on their team, while plagued with injuries, is too high for them to be sitting behind four teams in the league standings at this point in the season.