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Merrimack rides deep roster to tournament bid

Chris Allen | Thursday, March 24, 2011

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy did not pull any punches when discussing how he put together the roster of his No. 7 Warriors squad.

“I don’t want to say we’ve pieced this together, but we’ve taken a lot of guys that other teams have passed on,” he said. “We happen to think they’re good players.”

The surprise runners-up in the Hockey East Conference tournament will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 and their second all-time when they face the No. 9 Irish Saturday night as a No. 2-seed. The small liberal arts school in North Andover, Mass. has seen a hockey resurgence since Dennehy took over prior to the 2005-06 hockey season. In his six seasons behind the Warrior bench, Dennehy has rebuilt a program that competes in one of the toughest conferences in college hockey. In 2009-10, he was named All-New England Coach of the Year and Co-Hockey East Coach of the Year as Merrimack won a Division I program-record 16 games and qualified for the Hockey East Conference Tournament. Irish captain and senior defenseman Joe Lavin, who played his first two years of college hockey in Hockey East with Providence, said that Merrimack is clearly a team on the rise.

“[Merrimack] has had a great turnaround. They’re just finally starting to break through,” he said. “They’re a really hardworking team. Very physical, very smart, very methodical in the way they do things. They’re obviously a very dangerous team. We just need to be ready for the physicality.”

The Warriors (25-9-4) did indeed break through this season, smashing the previous season’s school record for Division I wins and finishing fourth in the conference in the regular season. In the Hockey East Conference tournament, Dennehy’s squad dispatched Maine in a first-round sweep and took care of No. 2-seed New Hampshire in the semifinals before falling to top-seed Boston College 5-3 in the title game. Despite Merrimack’s loss to the Eagles, Irish coach Jeff Jackson hinted that the Warriors might be the strongest team to come out of Hockey East.

“They’re a deep offensive team. They’ve got several forwards that have scored over 10, 15 goals. They’ve got a good power play,” he said. “They also defend well, and they’ve got a good goaltender. I’ve got a good friend of mine that told me they’re the best team in Hockey East, regardless of BC beating them in the championship game. We’ll have our hands full. It’s going to be a challenge. We’ll have to defend well and take advantage of our opportunities as well.”

Merrimack’s offense attack comes from a balanced group of forwards, highlighted by sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa, the reigning NCAA Rookie of the Year. Da Costa is one of seven players on the Warrior squad with double-digit goals this season. Jackson said the team would need to be prepared for the multifaceted Merrimack offense.

“They push the pace. They’re a good offensive team, they transition really well, they do a good job coming back into their own end and they transition well from that,” Jackson said. “With their forward depth they can roll their lines and be a threat with all their lines.”

Dennehy’s unique recruiting style of finding ‘diamonds in the rough’ has given the Warriors a deep team at all positions, not just at forward. It’s a style to which Dennehy is fully committed.

“The best players being recruited aren’t always the best players when they get to college and we’ve prided ourselves on turning over some stones and finding guys that may end up being blue-chippers at the collegiate level, not necessarily coming in with all the hoopla,” Dennehy said.

The Warriors will hope to capitalize on perhaps the deepest and most talented roster in school history in their matchup with Notre Dame.