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New ice age dawns at Merrimack

By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

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NORTH ANDOVER — Chris Barton notices the difference whenever he crosses campus.

“My freshman year, I’d walk around and I don’t think anyone knew who I was,’’ Merrimack’s hockey cocaptain says. “Now I walk around and guys say, ‘Good luck.’ The staff of the caf says, ‘Good luck.’ ’’

Joe Cannata was accustomed to peering through his goalie’s mask and seeing empty rows of bleachers inside Lawler Arena.

“Now, the student section is full before the game,’’ he says.

All it took was a winning season for the once-woeful Warriors to create a bit of buzz among their classmates, who once knew of the hockey team mostly by rumor.

“My freshman and sophomore years, people didn’t even know we had games Friday night,’’ recalls senior forward Joe Cucci, who transferred from Northeastern. “Now on Wednesday afternoons, there are 30 or 40 students outside the caf in line to get their tickets. It’s pretty exciting.’’

Merrimack hasn’t had a season like this since 1988, when it made it to the NCAA tournament and took a game from eventual champion Lake Superior State on the road. Now the ninth-ranked Warriors (22-8-4) not only have their first winning campaign in 22 years, they’ve also earned home ice for this weekend’s Hockey East tournament for the first time since 1997 and likely will receive an at-large NCAA berth. “Our goals have been elevated,’’ says coach Mark Dennehy, whose fourth-seeded squad takes on fifth-seeded Maine in the best-of-three conference quarterfinals here tomorrow night. “Our guys started to talk about championships, about going to the Garden, about the NCAAs.

“I know this: If we keep winning, good things will happen to us.’’

Just a couple of years ago, simply avoiding last place was a reasonable goal for a program that had finished at the bottom of the standings four straight times and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2004. That was before Dennehy arrived from UMass, where he’d been Don Cahoon’s assistant for five years.

“I came in thinking this was going to be more of a renovation and it turned into an extreme makeover,’’ he says. “We had to basically tear this down to the foundation.’’

Dennehy had experience with fixer-uppers. In two years, he and Cahoon had taken Princeton from a seven-victory season to its first NCAA appearance. At UMass, which had gone through six straight losing seasons, they had the Minutemen in the tournament final within four years. At Merrimack, things got worse before they got better. The Warriors won only three games in 2006-07, going winless in their final 16.

What Dennehy needed was recruits who were willing to put years of sweat equity into a from-the-ground-up reconstruction. Merrimack didn’t have the on-ice pedigree that Boston College and Boston University did. The school wasn’t founded until 1947, didn’t have a hockey team until 1956, and didn’t play a predominantly Division 1 schedule until 1989-90, its first year in Hockey East. But it did play in the same conference with national champions, which was a selling point.

“You hang the Hockey East shingle on your door and you can go anywhere in North America and it’ll have an impact,’’ says Dennehy, who played for three regular-season championship teams at BC. “They may not know who Merrimack is, but they know who Hockey East is and they know who our competitors are. Then it comes down to, you’ve got to differentiate your product from your competitors. There isn’t a school really like us.’’

Recruiting strategy What Merrimack offers is an intimate suburban setting with the smallest enrollment in the conference (2,150) and a program with nothing but upside. Dennehy and his staff figured that they weren’t likely to pry away top recruits from Frozen Four contenders so they poked around in Alberta and Quebec and checked around locally for blue-chippers who’d be attracted by the prospect of playing right away.

That’s how the Warriors got Cannata, a junior from Wakefield out of BC High who already has the school record for victories by a goalie since the school joined Division 1. Ordinarily BC might have snatched him, but the Eagles were set at the position.

“Most teams don’t dedicate more than two scholarships for goalies, so it came down to math,’’ Dennehy says. “The stars lined up for us.’’

Merrimack landed Stephane Da Costa, its Parisian sophomore sharpshooter, because it was unclear whether he would get through the NCAA’s clearinghouse.

“That was a chance that we could take,’’ says Dennehy. “That’s how you get special players at a school like this.’’

Da Costa scored five goals in his second game last season, including a natural hat trick in the first period, and went on to be the NCAA’s Rookie of the Year.

“All of a sudden it was here we go, we can play with anybody,’’ says Dennehy.

The Warriors went on to win 16 games, their most since 1989, beating a half-dozen ranked teams, including BC, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and pushing BU to the limit in the tournament quarterfinals.

This year, when Merrimack took the season series from everybody except Maine, nobody doubted its top-tier credentials.

“You beat the defending national champion, you’ve done something right,’’ says Cucci. “Any time you can knock off one of those schools, it shows you’re for real, that it’s not just a fluke. Especially when you do it more than once.’’

From New Year’s Day through Feb. 19, the Warriors lost only once, hanging 7-1 defeats on Maine and Vermont, thwacking UMass, 11-2, and running their winning streak on the road to nine. Most notable was the 4-3 victory at Amherst in which Merrimack, after falling behind with less than three minutes to play, rallied to win in overtime.

“Everybody has this total belief that we’re going to pull it out, no matter what,’’ says Cucci.

No Merrimack varsity in recent experience has had either the faith or the ability to do that.

“We’ve found our identity,’’ says Cannata. “How we have to play to be successful.’’

With success, though, has come the full attention of rivals who no longer chalk up the Warriors as an automatic 2 points.

“We’ve realized that every team is getting up for us,’’ says Barton. “We can’t take a night off.’’

As the playoffs approached and points grew precious, the ante increased.

“Every game’s a big game now,’’ says Dennehy. “You’re not going to sneak up on anybody. You’ve got a bull’s-eye on your back.’’

Merrimack went to Orono two weekends ago needing just a point to clinch home ice and took 4-0 and 7-1 beatings from Maine, its worst defeats in consecutive games in six years.

What happened there, though, has little bearing on what will happen here this weekend.

“We’ve talked a lot about living in the moment,’’ says Dennehy. “The regular season is over. Everyone’s back to 0-0. We got in the playoffs. We got home ice. We accomplished what we wanted.’’

High expectations The good work they’ve put in the past five months has the Warriors in a position where an early tournament exit likely won’t be fatal to their NCAA hopes. But they know how quickly a season can end because they’ve done it to somebody else.

In 1988, Northeastern, which had won the Hockey East crown, had Merrimack all but dead in the total-goal series, leading, 3-0, with 26 minutes to play in the second game after winning the opener, 5-3. But the Warriors rallied for seven unanswered goals to prevail by a 10-8 aggregate and made their first and only trip to the NCAAs.

“Somebody will have a sign all printed up,’’ then-coach Ron Anderson joked as the squad prepared to voyage to Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. “ ‘WELCOME MERRIMAC.’ Without the K.’’

Everyone in college hockey these days knows how to spell Carl Yastrzemski’s old school, and with the visibility comes the expectation to perform when the entire country is watching.

“You can’t run from it,’’ says Dennehy. “This is what they wanted. This is where they wanted to be. With it comes responsibility.’’

The seniors, who helped build the program from the basement up, are quick to correct freshmen who think that things always have been this way at Merrimack, with full stands and strings of Ws.

“Every day we let them know what it was like in the past,’’ Barton says. “I think they understand what we went through. What I want to do is make sure that they know that’s not acceptable anymore.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.