setting the stage
Under the guidance of 12th-year head coach Mark Dennehy, Merrimack entered the 2016-2017 season looking to build off the momentum built from the end of the 2015-16 campaign, when the Warriors used a hot finish in the final month of the regular season to vault into seventh place in the league standings, earn a home ice spot in the Hockey East Tournament Opening Round and eventually advance to the quarterfinal round of the league tournament for a second straight year.
Merrimack was well-positioned in all three zones, as the team returned its top-two scorers from the previous season as well as 5-of-6 starters on the blue line. Finally, both starting goaltenders from 2015-16 were back in the fold this winter, while the Warriors also welcomed eight newcomers to start the year.
Merrimack's schedule featured a challenging non-conference schedule with plenty of marquee names. Among the highlights were a trip to perennial power and B1G Ten member Wisconsin for just the second time in program history, as well as participating in the Florida College Hockey Classic. Merrimack also squared off with members of Atlantic Hockey, ECAC and WCHA.
HOME SWEET HOME(COMING)
One of the annual highlights of every Merrimack College academic year is Homecoming Weekend, when alumni join current students, staff and faculty for a weekend-long celebration on campus in which athletic events play a major role from a programming standpoint. In October, the men's ice hockey team welcomed Colgate for its annual two-game Homecoming Weekend set, and after dropping each of its previous three games to start the year, the team took full advantage of the energy and atmosphere that the crowd provided each night.
After scoring just twice in the first three games, Merrimack exploded for nine goals over the course of the weekend in back-to-back wins over visiting Colgate. The Warriors edged the Raiders, 4-3, on Friday night before cruising to a 5-2 victory on Saturday to round out the weekend.
The team kept that momentum rolling into the following week, when the Warriors opened up their Hockey East slate against annual power Boston College. The eighth-ranked Eagles, who themselves were coming off a Frozen Four berth from the previous season, built an early 2-0 lead in that game before Merrimack rallied back to eventually tie the Eagles and pick up a point in the league standings. Then, later that week, the Warriors gathered a big win at home against ECAC power Cornell to move back to .500 on the season while pushing their unbeaten streak to four.
BUCKING THE BADGERS
As the calendar turned to November, Merrimack leveled its overall ledger with a convincing 5-1 win at home against Mercyhurst to begin the month and followed that up with ties on the road against Providence and New Hampshire. However, one of the best moments of the month came halfway across the country when the Warriors invaded Madison to take on the University of Wisconsin.
After playing the hosts extremely tight in the first game of that series, junior goaltender Collin Delia returned from a 10-game injury absence and backstopped the Warriors to one of their most impressive victories of the season, a 2-0 win over the Badgers. He stopped all 33 shots he faced in his second appearance of the season, helping the Navy and Gold claim their first win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.
The Warriors returned from the midwest, enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday and then went to work by posting another impressive win, a thorough 5-2 victory over Providence College to close out the month. Finally, Merrimack wrapped up the calendar year with a trip down south for the Florida College Hockey Classic with games against Colorado College and Northern Michigan. The Warriors ended 2016 on a high note by defeating Northern Michigan, 4-2, and looked to carry momentum into the second half of the year.
TAKING DOWN THE TOP DOGS
After enduring a 1-4-0 stretch to start the new year, Merrimack turned its sights to top-ranked Boston University for a home-and-home series beginning with a Tuesday night tilt at Lawler Rink in the final week of January. Since becoming a Division I program, there was only one previous occasion in which Merrimack defeated a No. 1 team -- the 1998 Hockey East Quarterfinals against, coincidentally enough, BU. With a key stretch in the season approaching, the Warriors took on the Terriers looking to recapture some of that almost 20-year-old magic.
After BU took an early lead in the first game of the series, Merrimack responded with a goal at the end of the first period to draw level. Then, nearly 20 minutes later, anther tip-in goal late in the second period pushed the Warriors ahead by a goal. That lead became 3-1 after another goal early in the third, and that would be more than enough for Delia, who recorded 18 of his 30 saves in the third period to give the Warriors their second-ever win against a No. 1 team in the country.
As fulfilling as that Jan. 24 victory at home was, the Warriors had only three days to regroup before trying to topple the Terriers at Agganis Arena -- a venue that they had not won at in nearly six years. But Merrimack once again pulled off the upset, stunning the top-ranked Terriers thanks to two goals from Brett Seney and Michael Babcock while getting a season-high 37 saves from Delia in a 4-1 win that completed the team's first-ever regular season series sweep over BU. The victory also snapped an eight-game winless stretch (0-7-1) at Agganis Arena for Merrimack; the Warriors' last victory there came Nov. 11, 2011.
After concluding January with those historic victories over BU, the Warriors looked to carry that momentum into the final month of the regular season. With eight games remaining, Merrimack looked to gain ground in the league standings in hopes to clinch a home ice spot in the Hockey East Tournament for the second year in a row.
The month began with a hard fought weekend series with Connecticut in which both games finished in identical 2-2 ties. Both games were nearly mirror images of one another, as both sides squandered late leads on extra attacker goals en route to forcing overtime, marking the fourth straight game and fifth time in the last six games in which Merrimack and UConn have skated to ties. Even more incredible is the fact that neither team has won by more than a goal in each of the last six games.
Despite the frustration of not coming away with more than two points in that series, Merrimack regrouped for another huge game on the road at No. 7 Boston College. The Warriors were looking for their first win at Conte Forum in nearly 20 years, the last victory coming on Halloween night of the 1997 season. Merrimack would do just that, as senior Hampus Gustafsson's first hat trick -- and the program's first hat trick in six years -- assured the Warriors another historic win against the Eagles by a 6-3 score. More impressively, the win also gave the Warriors their first unbeaten season in league play against BC and BU (3-0-1).
After another impressive outing in a dominant road win at UMass the following Tuesday -- one that featured another shutout for Collin Delia -- the Warriors returned to Lawler Rink for the final regular season home series against Maine. Merrimack would take 3-of-4 points against the Black Bears in dramatic fashion, scoring a pair of third-period goals and then winning in overtime off the stick of Jace Hennig to lift the Warriors to a 4-3 win in the series opener.
The next night, another goal from Hennig helped complete another comeback that ended in a 4-4 tie to secure the series victory and stretch Merrimack's unbeaten streak to eight straight games (5-0-3), which was the team's longest such streak since a 10-game unbeaten stretch to start the 2011-12 season. The regular season concluded at Vermont, with Merrimack winning the series finale over the nationally ranked Catamounts to secure the #7 seed and guaranteed home ice in the Hockey East Tournament Opening Round.
SO WE MEET AGAIN
Thanks to their late-season charge up the league standings, Merrimack earned the right to host a best-of-three playoff series for the second straight season and only fourth time since joining Hockey East. Coincidentally, the Warriors drew a matchup against 10th-seeded New Hampshire in a rematch of last year’s first round matchup, which saw Merrimack rally from down a game to take the series in dramatic fashion.
This time around, Merrimack left no doubt in Game 1, opening up the best-of-three series with a thorough 4-0 victory over the Wildcats. The Warriors came out firing on all cylinders, as freshman Sami Tavernier opening the scoring six minutes into the game. Merrimack never looked back from there on out, scoring three more times to take the series lead.
UNH would flip the script the following night, evening the series by handing the Warriors a 4-0 shutout of their own in Game 2. Merrimack had several fantastic scoring chances over the course of the game and racked up 44 shots on goal, one of their highest amounts in a single game for the entire season, but were snakebitten from an offensive standpoint, meaning the series -- for the second straight year -- would come down to a decisive, winner-take-all Game 3 on Sunday night.
With the season on the line for both sides, Merrimack and UNH returned to Lawler Rink for Game 3 in a win-or-go-home scenario. However, a slow start put the Warriors behind the eight ball, as UNH built a 2-0 lead six minutes into the contest. Hampus Gustafsson cut that deficit in half later in the first, but the Wildcats netted another before the period ended to restore that two-goal lead after 20 minutes. Following a scoreless second, UNH capitalized on a key 5-on-3 power play to go ahead for good. Sophomore Derek Petti, who has had a knack for clutch playoff performances over the last two years, got the Warriors back to within two, but UNH would add an empty-netter and held on from there on out despite Merrimack piling up a season-high 46 shots on goal.
Despite the season coming to an end in the first round of the league tournament, the days that followed saw Merrimack gain plenty in the form of individual accolades. Headlining that list was Collin Delia, who was rightfully recognized by being named a Hockey East Third Team All-Star, as well as a New England Hockey Writers Association All-Star. Delia also was the winner of the league's year-long Stop It Goaltending Champion award, becoming the first player in program history to do so.
Becoming the first Warrior to earn all-league honors since Rasmus Tirronen '15 was named an all-league honorable mention selection at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, Delia went on to post a 9-8-3 record in 21 starts/appearances to go alongside a 2.15 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. In 14 league games, Delia posted the top save percentage (.928) and third-best goals-against average (2.21) while owning the third-best win percentage (7-3-3, .654) amongst all conference goaltenders over the course of the league's 22-game regular season schedule. He did so despite missing nearly a half of the league season and was still able to surpass the minimum 40-percent of minutes played threshold to qualify for the league leader boards, demonstrating just how solid of a year he had between the posts.
Delia's season was defined by his incredible two-month run from Jan. 1 onward. After the calendar turned to 2017, the netminder took his game to another level; he posted the sixth-best save percentage (.935) and ninth-best goals-against average (1.98) from that date onward, as he started 16 of the team's final 18 games in net. On the national level for the entire season, Delia currently ranks 11th in save percentage and 14th in GAA while also sitting tied for 13th in the country in total shutouts (3).
Delia, however, was not alone in earning recognition, as senior forward Hampus Gustafsson, was named the recipient of the Joe Tomasello Unsung Hero Award by the New England Hockey Writers Association. Gustafsson was Merrimack's top goal-scorer as part of a sensational final campaign with the Warriors. He lit the lamp a team-high 15 times, helping the Warriors finish seventh in Hockey East for the second straight season. Along the way, Gustafsson posted a career-best eight-game point streak (6-2--8) and notched the program's first hat trick in six years when he recorded a five-point outing (3g, 2a) in a road win at Boston College in February. In 22 games against league competition, Gustafsson racked up eight goals and 19 points overall. He ranked tied for 23rd amongst all conference skaters in league scoring and was Merrimack's top scorer against other Hockey East schools.
Merrimack will surely miss the services of seniors Hampus Gustafsson, Chris LeBlanc and Jonathan Lashyn. Gustafsson was one of the team's leading scorers every season and the team's top goal-scorer this year; LeBlanc provided grit and some timely scoring as one of the team's other top power forwards, and Lashyn will be remembered as one of Merrimack's true iron men over the past four years and leaves campus as one of the program's all-time leaders in games played.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the 2017-18 season. First and foremost is the fact that the Warriors were a 7-3-3 team in the final third of the season, with four of those wins coming against teams that were nationally ranked. More impressively, Merrimack finished the season with an 8-6-2 against teams with a top-20 ratings percentage index (RPI), meaning more than half of the team's total wins came against top-20 programs and five of those wins were against NCAA Tournament participants.
Furthermore, the Warriors are again slated to bring back plenty of key contributors from this past season starting with junior captain Jared Kolquist and assistant captain Marc Biega. Up front, lead scorer Brett Seney, who became the first skater since 2012-13 to post a 30-point scoring season (10g, 21a, 31pts), will headline the offense, which brings back five of its top scorers for the second straight season. Finally, the Warriors will also bring back five out of six starting defensemen, as well as all three goaltenders on the roster for the second year in a row.