No longer the league doormat, the Merrimack College Warriors have cracked the hallowed hall of Hockey East -- breaking into the top four historically reserved for Boston University, Boston College, New Hampshire and Maine.
Currently fifth in the 10-team league -- a first in team history this deep into any season -- Merrimack began December with a short stint in fourth, behind New Hampshire, BC and BU.
"It's an incredible league," said senior captain and Calgary native Chris Barton
, who became the team's career scoring leader this season. "We've been trying to rebuild the program. We haven't missed a step or (been) jumping ahead of ourselves."
No they haven't.
Those steps have been followed methodically, led by seventh-year coach Mark Dennehy, whose contract recently was extended to 2016.
"It's the most fun job in the world," Dennehy said. "I really enjoy coaching them. That's what it's about -- being around special people."
Dennehy was named the Hockey East Co-Coach and All-New England Coach of the Year last season as he guided the Warriors to the Hockey East playoffs for the first time since 2004. He also led Merrimack to 16 wins, most in the program's Division I history, and defeated every Hockey East team at least once while winning a playoff game for the first time since 1998.
The current 7-4-4 record (5-4-3 in league play) includes two wins against last year's national champion, Boston College, and two ties against the 2009 champion, Boston University.
All of that has earned them the No. 17 spot in the power rankings that determine most of the 16 teams that make the NCAA Tournament.
"We want to win every series this year," said Barton after the Warriors did just that with a 5-3 battering of BC in the rubber game of their weekend set Nov. 26. "This was the first time we (won any series) in my four years here. We actually play these season series as a way to get prepared for the playoffs. The first round is three, so the more you win of those, the better opportunity for home ice at the end of the year."
"BC is as good a team as there is in the country," Dennehy said after beating them last month. "We get good efforts from a lot of people. We want to attack -- that's who we are."
The attackers are led by Paris native sophomore Stephane Da Costa
. His 7 goals and 16 points have a bevy of NHL scouts on hand at most games to scribble notes about the undrafted forward's fluid, dynamic two-way play.
The defense is anchored by senior captain Adam Ross and senior Fraser Allan.
The remaining roster is seniors Joe Cucci and Francois Ouimet; juniors Jesse Todd, Ryan Flanigan, Carter Madsen, Elliott Sheen and assistant captain Karl Stollery; sophomores Brandon Brodhag, Kyle Bigos
and backup goalie Nick Drew; freshmen Mike Collins, Rhett Bly, Shawn Bates
, Brendan Ellis, Jordan Heywood and backup goaltender Sam Marotta.
And the thread uniting the team is junior goaltender Joe Cannata
from nearby Wakefield, Mass. He's played all 15 games thus far, with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
"Give Joey Cannata a lot of credit," Dennehy of the 2009 sixth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks
. "He plays with such poise all the time. What we loved about him when he was recruited was he's just got ice water in his veins -- doesn't matter what the score is, who we're playing, where we are. Sometimes we need to check him for a pulse. For a goaltender, that's awesome."
What's most awesome for Merrimack appears to lie ahead.
"My guys better believe this is coming down to March. Our goal is to put ourselves in a good position to make the playoffs, get home ice and go to the (TD) Garden. Compete for the big trophies," Dennehy said.
"First day four years ago all we did was work, work, work," Barton said. "When we stop working and it gets to our heads, we won't make it. We got a nice roll going. We'll take a little break at Christmas and come back charged and ready to keep going."
On Campus Clips
-- Fifteen years ago, there was no hockey program at Niagara University. Today, Dwyer Arena on the school's campus is serving as co-host of the 2011 World Junior Championship. The Purple Eagles have advanced to three NCAA Tournaments and co-hosted the Frozen Four in 2003. … Holiday tournaments this week include: The Florida College Classic in Estero, among Miami, Maine, St. Cloud and Cornell; the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, among Michigan, Michigan State, Colorado College and Michigan Tech; the UConn Classic in Storrs, Conn., among Bowling Green, Princeton, Holy Cross and Connecticut; the Ledyard Bank Classic in Hanover, N.H., among Boston College, Colgate, Mercyhurst and Dartmouth; the Dodge Holiday Classic in Minneapolis, among Union, Ferris State, Bemidji State and Minnesota; the Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vt., among Amy, Harvard, Ohio State and Vermont; the Shillelagh Tournament in Hoffman Estates, Ill., among Brown, Boston University, Minnesota State and Notre Dame.
NHL.com's Top 10
1. Yale (11-1-0)
2. New Hampshire (10-2-4)
3. North Dakota (13-5-2)
4. Minnesota-Duluth (12-2-3)
5. Boston College (11-5-0)
6. Miami (10-5-3)
7. Denver (12-5-3)
8. Nebraska-Omaha (11-4-1)
9. Maine (8-4-4)
10. Boston University (8-4-5)