College hockey: Merrimack working toward return to glory

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College hockey: Merrimack working toward return to glory

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

There was a time when nobody overlooked Merrimack hockey. In that time, a losing season was unacceptable and conference playoffs were inevitable for the Warriors.

It started with Thom Lawler.

In Lawler's 13 years as coach of Merrimack he succeeded in bringing the once-D II Warriors to the forefront of the esteemed ECAC conference. Lawlers teams made the playoffs in all but one year during his tenure. Merrimack reinforced its resume by winning three ECAC championships and just missing as runner-up four times. His .609 winning percentage remains unsurpassed in Merrimack hockey history.

The centerpiece of Lawler's success? A Division II national title in 1978.

"Thom Lawler did something with the small school athletic program which brought us national attention," then vice-president of development Bob Hatem has said. "I think the man truly represented what sports are supposed to do."

But revelry following Merrimacks historic run was cut tragically short. Just two months after leading his team to a national championship, the coach succumbed to a heart attack. Lawler was 44 year old.

Things have since changed in North Andover.

Mark Dennehy now holds the reigns of Warriors hockey; the fourth coach since Lawlers passing. Also, Merrimack is in its 21st Division I season and has been a member of the power-packed Hockey East since 1989. It was a jump that the program felt ready for, but entering the ring with the big boys proved to be a reality check.

Merrimack has not finished over .500 since joining Hockey East. In the last five seasons alone, the Warriors havent even tallied a double-digit win total.

"Thats the challenge for everyone in Hockey East, isnt it? Dennehy says. "Youre going to be tested on every night. You could be playing against last years national champion or last years Frozen Four team."

So dont blame the fans for getting excited this season. A hot start by the Warriors had them ranked No. 1 in scoring, No. 1 on the power play and No. 2 on the penalty kill in Hockey East contests at the end of November. In the J. Thom Lawler Arena they were unstoppable. One by one, the usual suspects marched to Merrimack; UVM, BU, BC, and Northeastern; looking for an easy-out against the perennial underdog. One by one, the visitors went home with a loss. Merrimacks 6-5-0 overall and 3-3-0 Hockey East records over two months were already doubly better than the entire effort of 2007.

Unfortunately, sustainability has been a problem.

The Warriors have dropped six of seven games since November 28. Cause for concern? Sure. Should fans expect 14-straight losses to end the season like in 07? Coach Dennehy doesnt think so.

"Its amazing to me how much different this years team is from the four teams I coached here previously, he remarked. "We feel as if we have three lines now that can score at any moment. We have not had that type of scoring balance since Ive been here.

Dennehy doesnt seem to feel pressure to return Merrimack to Lawler-like success in a hurry. He was fully aware that he was grabbing the helm of a foundering program when he took the job and accepted the challenge with passion.

"We play David to most teams Goliath every weekend in this league. But theres reason why Merrimack belongs in Hockey East. Most people forget that David won the fight. So we do enjoy that role.

The Warriors arent slaying giants quite yet.

What Merrimack can do in the meantime is take steps toward improvement. Recruiting will play an important role in that process. The nations top talent that turns to the Hockey East will continue to gravitate toward teams like UNH, UMaine, BU, and BC, but as the Warriors progress there will be more players who look to Merrimack for a big hockey-small school experience.

Freshman sensation Stephane Da Costa (Paris, France) is one of them. Da Costa leads the country in points per game (1.18) among rookies and was named the Hockey East Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Month for a third straight time. The forwards mission at MC is simple.

"Just trying to help the team and the organization and everything like that, he said. "That's it,

And Da Costa has helped. The Warriors are currently just two points shy of tying Vermont and Boston University for sixth place in the conference standings. With 16 games left to play, 2010 is already considered an improvement over 2009. Even Thom Lawlers teams had to grind through four different sub-.500 seasons.

For now, Mark Dennehys mix of straightforward determination and patience is a good match for Merrimack. The coach earnestly believes that the Warriors have a place in Hockey East play and that the day will come again when the program wont be overlooked.

One game at a time.

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

FOXBORO -- There's a clock on the wall in the weight room at Tom Brady's house.

When the Patriots lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game last January, Brady's father told me his son set the clock to count away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Super Bowl 51. That clock has just 13 days left on it now. It won't require a sad resetting this week.

Brady won't be around to see it hit zeroes. He'll be in Texas playing in his record seventh Super Bowl. As planned.

PATRIOTS 33, STEELERS 9

HERE THEY COME, ROGER

The Patriots are the last team the NFL apparatus wanted to see in Houston and now the boogeyman's at their door, proving that living well is the best revenge.

Nowhere to run to, Roger. Nowhere to hide. The rules apply to everyone and there's a rule that we all learn sooner or later is very true. What goes around comes around. We all have it coming, kid.

We imagine Brady is clearing his throat for the delicious last laugh, but he's said it a hundred different ways in the past four months: Vengeance and vindication aren't driving him. That's wasted energy. Poison.

He's focused on what's immediately in front of him while reminding himself time's fleeting. The best way for him to help his team during his four-game exile in September was to work out relentlessly, which he did so that when he returned he was as good as he's ever been.

And in his absence, his team understood the best way to honor him while he was gone was to take care of business. Which they did beginning September 12 in Arizona when, instead of playing rudderless football without their on-field leader, they began a 3-1 run with a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.

"Yeah, well we never dwell on that," Bill Belichick began when I asked him Sunday night about the obstacles the team's had in front of it beginning in September and through the rest of the season. "We take the hand that we're dealt and play the cards . . .

"You referenced the beginning of the year, but it's been true in every game, really," Belichick added. "It's a credit to those guys. It's a credit to the depth on our team and the way that those guys prepare. They work hard. They don't know if they're going to get an opportunity or not and then when it finally comes and they do get it, they're usually ready to take advantage of it and help the team win. That's why we're where we are. We have a special team, a special group of guys that really work hard. They deserve the success that they've had. I mean, it's hard to win 16 games in this league. You've got to give a lot of credit to the players and the job they've done all year week after week. It's tough, but they come in and grind it out. They sit in these seats for hours, and hours, and hours, and prepare, and prepare, and go out there and lay it on the line every week. Again, it's a good group of men."

Beginning in the offseason with the trade of Chandler Jones to the start of the season with the Brady suspension to the stunning trade of Jamie Collins, the loss of Rob Gronkowski and a defense that was scoffed at on a weekly basis, the Patriots have weathered all of it to get to this point.

"One More" is the marketing slogan this team's had affixed to it.

"Bend Don't Break" is much more apt. Because they never did.

It's a phrase that's been framed as a slight by when used to describe the New England defense this season but safety Duron Harmon had a different interpretation.

"I don't know. I kind of like it," he said. "It just shows the type of toughness and mental toughness we have. Even when the situation might seem terrible or might seem bad, we have enough mental toughness to come out and make a positive out of it."

Harmon and Patrick Chung hauled down Steelers tight end Jesse James inches short of a touchdown just before halftime. The Patriots defense held after that, forcing Pittsburgh to settle for a deflating field goal. Instead of a 17-13 lead at halftime, the Pats led 17-9.

"Right then and there, a lot of people are thinking that's seven points, but that's a four-point turnover basically," said Harmon. "Just hold them to three and that really helped us with the momentum going into [halftime]."

When one considers all the collateral damage of Deflategate and the fortunes of the antagonists and protagonists since, it's . . . well, it's telling.

The Colts canned tattletale GM Ryan Grigson on Saturday and are in disarray. The Ravens missed the playoffs again. Owners who fingerwagged and wanted to see the Patriots brought to heel like John Mara, Bob McNair, Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson have teams that were either bounced from the playoffs or didn't even make them.

And the Patriots are headed to Houston anyway. Despite all their best efforts.

"I think it's a great story, but I think right now our focus is got to go out to Houston in a couple of weeks and try to win it," said Devin McCourty when asked about the revenge angle. "I think that makes the story even better."