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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hockey Log

Friars keen on Merrimack do-over

Labels, schmabels, the Merrimack Warriors are tenaciously communicating through their helmet cages.

Only twenty days removed from their previous excursion to the Valley, the Friars will again lock twigs with the Warriors in a home-and-home pair this weekend, starting Friday at 7 up at Lawler Arena. In that previous fixture, the conventionally plebeian Merrimack –or, most precisely, goaltender Andrew Braithwaite- did just as the college hockey Romans have done of late.

Braithwaite swallowed 50 Providence shots –a personal best in his career, not unlike Michigan’s Billy Sauer back in December or New Hampshire’s Kevin Regan just last weekend- and in effect allowed his mates to wrest a point away from the bouncy Friars through a 1-1 tie.

Granted, the Warriors (4-15-2) are confined to the cellar of Hockey East at the moment and are without a glowing two-point package in their last seven conference games (0-6-1). Those columns alone are apt to say that after Merrimack achieved its fourth conference win back on January 11 –thereby stamping its most fulfilling bushel in a generation of players- the other skate has promptly dropped.

Not so, Friars coach Tim Army is first to admit as he takes his crew back up for another go-around at Braithwaite and Co.

“They play very hard, very well,” he acknowledged. “Look at their scores last weekend up in Vermont. They’re playing everybody tough. They work real hard. They’ve still got a chance to make the playoffs, so there’s obviously a lot at stake for them, so they’re gonna be alert.”

After all, these guys have the Hockey East emblem pasted on the upper left side of their sweaters just as much as their fellow coastal competitors. And the never-dying “anybody’s game” designation of this season means everybody.

The Warriors have no NHL draftees and only one senior in Derek Pallardy to speak of. Little more than 29 points from Rob Ricci and 13 goals from Matt Jones has cultivated substantial scoring for them. But as PC learned in bittersweet fashion, on a hefty diet of Braithwaite’s determined chin-standing and a collective eye for opposing holes, they have kept themselves in the reckonable realm.

“We had 50-plus shots against them and gave up only 18, so we did a lot of good things,” granted Army. “I think as we go into this weekend, we’ve gotta maintain discipline. They have some really talented players. We can’t give them unnecessary opportunities on their power play.”

In their three games sandwiched by Friar bouts, one a home date with Northeastern and the other two a venture to Vermont, Merrimack has only mustered four goals. But three of those were authorized on man advantages. Two weeks ago, the Huskies –eventual 4-2 victors- had sculpted a 3-0 advantage through forty minutes, only to let the Warriors shrivel that to 3-2 on two power play strikes in a span of 55 seconds.

PC (10-7-4) limited the Warriors to two fragmented power plays, both incidents occurring in the second period, in their previous meeting. Merrimack’s Matt Moulakeis had zapped the first opportunity when he took an interference flag while Matt Taormina shortened the Friars’ fourth and final power play of the night with a holding infraction.

Which brings up another matter that Army hopes to see sharpened on his side.

“I would expect more of the same from what we saw a couple of weeks ago,” he said of the matchup, “but we could be more efficient on our power play.

“Our power play’s gotta cash in against them. We did not capitalize on our power play last time. We had the 1-0 lead and we had an opportunity to extend the lead on a power play and we didn’t get it done, so our power play has gotta be alert.”

In the first period of the February 2 draw, Merrimack’s discipline bowed only 32 seconds after Kyle MacKinnon broke the ice for the Friars. But that opportunity, as well as a luscious carry-over into the middle frame dissolved.

And even on a general scale, Army added, the Friars could slow down their habitual sugar rushing in the attacking zone. The Category 5 shot count last time, he suggested, may have been slightly padded by some empty calories when more rebounds and settled puck movement could have been useful.

“We could do a better job of getting some traffic to the net and looking for those secondary opportunities that we maybe didn’t get in quite the same volume that we should have the first time around.”

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