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.

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

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STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

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Posey stays out of the fray during Strickland-Harper brawl

SAN FRANCISCO  — As an irate Bryce Harper charged toward the mound, Buster Posey just stood and watched from behind home plate.

And when the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants cleared their benches Monday and punches flew both ways, the All-Star catcher did his best to remain just outside the fray.

Not where some expected to find the Giants team leader with his pitcher, Hunter Strickland, exchanging head shots with Harper.

“Posey did NOTHING to stop Harper from getting to his pitcher,” former major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis wrote on Twitter. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”

Posey declined to enter the fracas, instead remaining around its edges and watching as the players scuffled in “a pretty good pile,” as Giants manager Bruce Bochy called it.

Posey dealt with a concussion in April after being struck in the head by a pitch, but did not say he held back because of concerns related to that. He did say he was wary about the risk of injury.

“There were some big guys tumbling around out there,” Posey said. “You see Mike Morse and Jeff Samardzija are about as big as they come and he was getting knocked around like a pinball. So it was a little dangerous to get in there.”

Still, social media was abuzz at the sight of Posey not sticking up for his teammate.

“Strickland must have told @BusterPosey he was hitting him and let him come cause he didn’t even give a soft jog,” Willis wrote.

“Says all you need to know that Buster Posey didn’t bother to hold back Harper,” tweeted Fox broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt . “Let him go get his pitcher.”

Also absent from the fight: hard-nosed Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. As his teammates flew over the dugout railing, Bumgarner stayed put, perhaps because the left-hander is still recovering after injuring his pitching shoulder and ribs in a dirt biking accident in April.