By Jake Seiner/DFP Staff
As the hunt for playoff positioning put Hockey East through the spin cycle during the season’s final weeks, there was one team Boston University coach Jack Parker said he wouldn’t mind avoiding in the tournament’s first round –– Merrimack College.
As fate would have it, the third-seeded Terriers (16-15-3, 13-12-2 HE) drew the sixth-seeded Warriors (15-17-2, 12-13-2) for the first round, and will host Merrimack in a best of three series this weekend.
Merrimack is coming off a three-point weekend against Providence College that included a 5-0 win and a 1-1 tie. Merrimack’s special teams are a strength, having converted on 22.9 percent of their man-advantage chances while holding teams off the scoreboard minus a man 80.9 percent of the time.
“They’re a very solid team in every way,” Parker said. “They’re good killing penalties. They’re great on the power play. They’re tough to forecheck because of the way they break out of the zone.
“They present a lot of problems and they have a lot more talent than they’ve ever had. This is a team that is more than on the rise –– it’s here.”
“They know that they’re the underdog every year,” junior captain Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Now that they’re in the playoffs, I don’t think they’re going to quit that mentality of playing like that. They always play hard and they’re going to come out and be physical with us and try to take us off our game.”
Perhaps no battle will be more key than the one to avoid the penalty box. Merrimack was the most penalized team in Hockey East this year –– edging out the Terriers by 19 minutes on the season.
The teams have combined for 144 penalty minutes in three games against each other this year. Nearly half of those minutes came in the squads’ first meeting on Nov. 13, when the teams combined for 70 minutes in the box. BU junior Colby Cohen and Merrimack junior Matt Moulakelis each received game misconducts in the third period of that game as the Warriors rolled to a 6-3 win –– MC’s only win of the season series.
In particular, BU is focusing on avoiding retaliation penalties against a Merrimack squad that isn’t afraid to get physical.
“There’s always a focus on [not retaliating],” Parker said. “Both coaches are going to want their kids to play hard, but you have to make sure you’re not taking stick penalties, tripping penalties, hooking penalties, high-sticking penalties, and you certainly don’t want to be taking any retaliation penalties.”
“That’s really just a mental focus, and it comes down to us being more disciplined than they are,” Shattenkirk said. “We know they can try to take us off our game and try to get to us that way. It’s important to us to make sure that we’re staying on track there. Penalties in the playoffs can really kill you.”
In their last four games, the Terriers have allowed 17 goals, and their positioning in the defensive zone was markedly worse than it had been since the holiday break.
“We had a great week this week working on our D-zone coverage and tightening up there,” Shattenkirk said. “Last weekend [against Northeastern University] was a little bit better than [at the University of Vermont], and I definitely think that we’re getting back to where we were before, playing much better in our D-zone in front of the net.”
Additionally, the Terriers will need to get a more consistent effort from sophomore netminder Kieran Millan, who has taken a step back after what began as a stellar second half of the season.
“I think [Millan] was playing great, and then he took a step back, then a step forward, then a step back,” Parker said. “Even during the course of a game –– I thought he would have liked to have had a goal back against Northeastern over his glove, and then he made a couple of unbelievable saves for us in the third period. He was sharp in practice this week. I’m sure he’ll be ready to go.”