On the heels of a pair of thunderous victories over rivals BU and Maine, the Boston College Eagles travel to North Andover to take on Merrimack tonight at 7 PM. With big games right in the rear view mirror and some important games upcoming, tonight's game has "trap game potential" written all over it. If BC can avoid the letdown, they have every opportunity to extend their unbeaten run to 10 games.
The story of the season for Merrimack has been two-fold: they've had, for the most part, a very good defense, not only limiting opponents to 2 or fewer goals in 12 of 20 games this season, but also limiting opportunities generally, yielding just 26 shots per game in league games - the second-stingiest defense behind UNH, who only averages 24 shots against.
However, this has been coupled with one of the more inept offenses in the nation. The Warriors are averaging a remarkable 1.25 goals per game in conference play, and 2 goals per game overall. That's... really bad, and really, downright shocking. In terms of generating shots, they are second from the bottom in the league at 29.80 shots on goal per game. So basically, if you're paying the $25 or whatever Merrimack is charging to go sit in their MDC rink tonight to watch the game, don't be expecting a wide-open shootout.
Oddly enough, Merrimack busted out of their offensive slumber to put up a 6-spot on one of the nation's top teams, Quinnipiac, on Saturday at Lawler, earning the 'Mack a split of the two game set with the Bobcats and giving them their best win of the season, on which they are 6-11-3 overall (1-5-2 Hockey East). How they managed to score 6 against the Q will go down as one of those great unsolvable mysteries of the universe.
Interestingly, highlighting Merrimack's generally solid defensive play, the Warriors are a perfect 6-0-0 when scoring three or more goals this season. They're 0-11-3 when scoring two or fewer. That pretty much tells the story.
Despite the Mack's newfound offensive explosion I'm banking on the game trending back toward what the average Merrimack game has looked like this season. The Warriors will try to impose their own tempo on the game, slow it down, and prevent BC from opening it up into the kind of track meet the Eagles excel at. Because Merrimack rarely, if ever, is aggressive on the forecheck or generates a lot of attacking pressure in the offensive zone, don't expect BC to get a lot of transition opportunities and odd-man rushes - a hallmark of BC's game. Merrimack will excel if they're able to slow the game up through the neutral zone, set the tone physically, and stay out of the box; a big key of course will be how tightly the officials call some of the obstruction and borderline hitting that often comes with the territory when you're facing Merrimack.
The likely nature of tonight's game is one that highlights the difference between this year's iteration of the BC "super line" and some of the top lines of recent years. When BC fans debated the previous "super line" of Atkinson, Gibbons, and Whitney, it was easy to point to their declining stats in the grind of the Hockey East season against the UMasses, Merrimacks and Vermonts of the world, who would use their size to grind down the top line and prevent them from getting transition opportunities. Thus, it would fall on the shoulders of Jimmy Hayes, Chris Kreider, and some of the other 2nd- and 3rd- line players to carry BC to victory against such teams. (It's nice when your 'fallback' options are guys who are now NHL regulars.)
This year's super line, however, is constructed differently. Hayes and Arnold have NHL size and strength, and if the 'Mack wants to key in on Gaudreau, those two would likely be happy to have some extra space to operate. With the way that line has been clicking, it's hard to see them staying off the board tonight, regardless of what Merrimack throws at them.
There's no reason to think BC goes away from the straight goaltender rotation at this point, so expect Brian Billett to be between the pipes tonight. He'll have to be sharp. Falling behind Merrimack early can be a death sentence, allowing them to really focus on their tight, defensive system. (Update: The Kid reports Demko will be in net tonight. The same thing applies about him needing to be sharp, obviously. This is big news in that this is the first time BC has moved away from the straight rotation all year - and tonight is obviously this week's most important game, with a trip to Penn State on deck on Saturday. Big stuff. We'll be sure to discuss the implications in this week's Hockey Banter later in the week.)
As has been highlighted here and elsewhere, BC has had a hard time at Merrimack in recent years. They're not the only ones -- Merrimack has one of the sharpest home-to-road disparities of any team in the nation over the past 3-4 years -- but it's been especially striking to see BC have so many issues there. Last year, both games at Merrimack went to overtime, with BC losing the first and winning the second, on Quinn Smith's memorable game-winning effort. Expect another close, tight game tonight. While I'm on the record as predicting a "trap game" loss, I'd like to be pleasantly surprised and see BC's run extended.
Merrimack's Key Players
Senior Mike Collins - one of those guys who seems like he's been around forever - has a 7-10--17 line for the Warriors this season. Sophomore Brian Christie (4-6--10) is the Mack's only other 10+ point scorer.
Junior Rasmus Tirronen has wrested the starting job away from senior Sam Marotta this year, though neither has been overly dominant. Tirronen is smack in the middle of the Hockey East pack with a .923 save percentage (comparable to Billett's .920). Despite showing flashes of brililance in past years, Marotta has had a terrible season, with an .880 save percentage.
Goals per game
Shots per game
Goals allowed per game
Shots allowed per game
BC 18/88 - 20.5%
MC 15/99 - 15.2%
BC 101/112 - 90.2%
MC 79/94 - 84%
How to follow along:
Watch (PPV) at merrimackathletics.com
Listen on WEEI 850-AM or BCEagles.com
The puck drops at 7 PM.