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Hockey heights are hit

Merrimack Div. 1 No. 1 for 1st time

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / November 22, 2011

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When the Merrimack hockey team opened the 2011-12 campaign, the expectations were high but also realistic. Coach Mark Dennehy acknowledged that the offense had taken a hit with the loss of top scorer Stephane Da Costa as well as No. 2 Chris Barton and No. 3 Joe Cucci. The three combined for 120 points last season.

Despite that, the coaching staff believed the younger players on the team were ready for more responsibility, and with senior Joe Cannata in goal, the Warriors looked to be in good shape.

But no one expected them to be undefeated through nine games (8-0-1), and yesterday the team was elevated to the No. 1 ranking in the country in both the USCHO.com Division 1 men’s poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll for the first time in program history. Merrimack earned 27 first-place votes in the USCHO.com poll and 20 in the USA Today poll.

It’s a substantial reward for the smallest Division 1 school in the nation.

“We’re happy to be recognized on a national level,’’ Dennehy said. “It’s a tribute to the coaching staff, administration, and players who have worked tirelessly to turn the program around in such a short period of time. But at the same time, it is important for us to recognize the difference between recognition and accomplishment.’’

Athletic director Glenn Hofmann said it’s the culmination of a great deal of commitment from everyone around the program.

“It’s a tremendous honor for the program and a credit to the coaching staff and to the players,’’ Hofmann said. “Every member of Merrimack’s faculty, staff, and administration as well as alumni, especially hockey alums, should be very proud of today’s ranking. We are all very aware of the pride and dedication our alums have to the program.’’

The Warriors have received scoring from many sources. Last season, the team had 15 players who scored at least 10 points. This season, it already has 18 players with at least a point.

Merrimack takes on Alabama-Huntsville at Lawler Arena tomorrow night. The Warriors have been extremely tough at home. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, they are 29-5-3 there, 11-0-1 in the last 12, and have sold out nine straight contests.

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