Going into the winter break, the Merrimack Warriors are currently sitting in fifth place, one point behind Maine for the last home ice spot in the Hockey East playoffs. The Warriors have already won the season series against the Eagles, using a pair of home ice victories to take the regular sesason series 2-1. Junior goalie Joe Cannata is having a great season, ranking second in Hockey East in both goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.925).
Clearly, there's plenty of reason for optimism in North Andover. Merrimack's coach Mark Dennehy (BC '91) has the Warriors coming off a season in which they won 12 Hockey East games, and pushed the number 3 seeded BU Terriers to three games in the Hockey East quarterfinals. The schedule the rest of the way is manageable, with nine of 15 games against teams below them in the Hockey East Standings.
Still, this seems a little much, no?
"Since the 1990s, Hockey East has been dominated by the "Big 4" - Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine - but this season things appear different.
One publication even touted the league as having a "Big 5."
The Warriors are the new addition to the equation."
Merrimack is having arguably their best two-season stretch in program history, especially in Hockey East play, where last year's 0.481 winning percentage was the best mark in over a decade. But then again, we've seen various Hockey East programs rise up and challenge the "Big 4" over the last ten seasons.
During the 2006-07 season, it was a surprising UMass team that finished fourth in the Hockey East regular season standings with a record of 15-9-3, making the NCAA Tournament as a four seed and upsetting the East regional's top seed, Clarkson, in overtime. UMass would fall a game short of the Frozen Four, falling to Maine in the East Regional final. The Minutemen haven't finished above .500 in Hockey East since.
The following season, Vermont finished the regular season in third place with a record of 13-9-5. The Catamounts made it all the way to the Hockey East Championship game before falling to the eventual National Champs (us).
Two years ago, it was Northeastern riding the hot goaltending of Brad Theissen to a 15-6-3 regular season record and a second place finish. The Huskies would fall to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semis, 3-2 OT and would fail to make the NCAAs.
Last year, order was mostly restored with New Hampshire, BC, BU and Maine all earning home ice in the Hockey East tournament, but UMass-Lowell finished in a three-way tie with BU and Maine with 28 regular season points (12-11-4) before losing an overtime heart-breaker to the Black Bears in their decisive third game of the Hockey East quarterfinals.
It seems like every year, it's a new upstart challenging the "Big 4" for Hockey East regular season supremacy. So does Merrimack hockey have staying power as one of Hockey East's "Big 5?"
History would tell you otherwise. Last year's 12-13-2 Hockey East finish was the best finish in over a decade, and the Warriors have gotten to .500 in conference play just once in their time in Hockey East (1996-97). More often than not, Merrimack has been Hockey East's annual cellar dweller, failing to make the Hockey East tournament.
Certainly Warriors goalie Joe Cannata, a Vancouver Canucks draft pick, won't be at the school forever. Northeastern followed up their second place Hockey East finish in 2008-09 with a ninth place finish last year after goalie Brad Theissen jumped to the pros. The Huskies are currently in seventh place in this year's Hockey East standings.
The school's status as an Division II school in all sports except men's ice hockey also puts Merrimack at a disadvantage to traditional Hockey East powers BC, BU, New Hampshire and Maine. Both in terms of facilities and national reputation. Over the last ten seasons, just two of the 13 major conference's schools that otherwise compete in Division II have advanced to the Frozen Four -- Minnesota-Duluth in 2004 and Bemidji State in 2009.
(Though it should be noted that Colorado College has had considerable success in men's hockey despite being a Division III school in other sports. Last year's Cinderella, RIT, is another Division III school.)
In my mind, Merrimack doesn't really seem poised to enter the ranks of the "Big 5" of Hockey East. The school has a lot of built-in disadvantages. Over the last few seasons we've seen Hockey East program bubble up and challenge BC, BU, New Hampshire and Maine during the conference regular season, only to recede back to the middle of Hockey East's second tier of teams.
That being said, it's a tough proposition to ever bet against a Boston College grad, no?