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College hockey notes

They like what they’re seeing

Dennehy, fans take to Warriors

Merrimack defenseman Kyle Bigos has been burying opposing players — when he hasn’t been buried in the penalty box. Merrimack defenseman Kyle Bigos has been burying opposing players — when he hasn’t been buried in the penalty box. (File/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / November 19, 2010

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When Mark Dennehy took over the coaching reins at Merrimack in June 2005, he knew it was going to pose a challenge. The level of competition in Hockey East was very high, there would be a constant fight to land recruits, and building the program would require patience and a long-term commitment.

This year, Dennehy and his staff are starting to see their investment pay off. Dennehy, who was rewarded this week with a contract extension that runs through the 2015-16 season, is thoroughly enjoying the journey.

“This might be the most fun I’ve ever had coaching,’’ said Dennehy, whose team is 2-2-4 overall heading into this weekend’s home-and-home series with UMass-Lowell. “I really like this group of young men. They’re fun to be around. The rink is one of their favorite places — all of them. It’s hard to keep them out of the rink, they love it. As happy as we are with where the program is heading, we need to keep grinding and keep working hard.’’

The school renovated Lawler Arena and, in contrast to some past years, the students have rallied around the Warriors and fan interest has been growing steadily.

The players can feel the buzz and they have been harnessing some of that energy when it’s time to drop the puck. Sophomore Kyle Bigos said Dennehy has much to do with how far the team has come.

“He’s done an amazing job,’’ said Bigos. “No matter what I say, it would just be a complete understatement. He just reaches out in so many different areas. He helps out with some of the kids’ teams around the area, which is really neat. I’ve had the pleasure of going out with him and helping and so have a couple other players.

“The way he treats the team as players is just phenomenal. You want to play for him and go out and block shots and do anything you can to help him get a win. He really helps you grow as a player and a person. We really pride ourselves on being the hardest-working team and now that we have skill to go along with it, it really makes us a force out there. I think people are starting to recognize that.’’

Big man on campus As for Bigos, the 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound defenseman has become somewhat of a cult figure with the student section. Every time he’s on the ice, the fans react with enthusiasm.

“He’s got an infectious personality,’’ said Dennehy. “He’s always got a smile on his face whether he’s got a tooth in or not. Kids love him. You’d think someone that big and ominous would be feared. They also know when he lays a body on someone, usually he’s going to win that battle. The contact part of the game is a popular piece.’’

One area where Bigos needs to improve is the number of penalties he takes. He had four Friday in a 1-1 contest at Boston University and two in the home rematch the next night (a 3-3 game).

Dennehy said he doesn’t think Bigos’s size contributes to how often he’s whistled off.

“I wouldn’t say he’s a target, but he’s just hard to miss,’’ said Dennehy. “I came pretty close to giving him our rule book and making him read it this week, but I know he has a lot of school work. One of the things we’re working on with Kyle is fewer ‘SportsCenter’ hits and more about just keeping a man to the outside and containing them.

“It’s more about playing under control. He’s got such a massive reach, we’re trying to get him to use his stick a little better as well.’’

Bigos said he knows he has to be in better position.

“It’s something I need to work on,’’ he said. “I’ve been working on it with my coach and hopefully we can drop those penalty minutes down to averaging zero a game.

“They are penalties by the book. The refs have to call them, I make the call for them, really. They have little to do with it. I see a big improvement last year to this year even though last weekend was kind of a setback. It was a really emotional series and I think that played a factor, too.’’

Bigos, an Oilers’ draft pick, is enjoying his celebrity status among his peers.

“It makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you’re doing something right to accumulate that,’’ he said. “I kind of laugh at it after the game when some of the players point it out. It’s something that puts a smile on your face when you’re playing.’’

Cannata contributes One of the Warriors’ key players is Wakefield native Joe Cannata. The junior goaltender, a draft pick of the Canucks, has played every game this season and compiled a 2.11 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

“He was our first [US] national development player in the history of the school,’’ said Dennehy. “Early on, when we first start moving in the right direction, when you get a commitment like that, that in an of itself is a win.

“Last year, he got off to a little bit of a tough start but finished [strong]. It wasn’t until this summer when we saw how hard he was working, he stayed here and took a class, so I’m happy for him because all his hard work is paying off.’’

Cannata said working out at the school over the summer made the difference.

“I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in my whole career, just having some structure,’’ he said. “The summer workouts are pretty tough. [This year] we still feel like we’re a little bit of an underdog, but it’s definitely getting there. There’s a confidence in the locker room that wasn’t there before, and we’re coming off two ties [with Boston University]. It was good to know that the team wasn’t satisfied, particularly with Saturday’s [tie]. We were definitely happy, but we weren’t satisfied.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.