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.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.