Sports

No. 2 line gives Merrimack some juice in Hockey East playoffs

NORTH ANDOVER — Having lived to see a better day, Merrimack hockey coach Mark Dennehy and his revived bunch of Warriors take on Providence, the defending national champion, this weekend in the Hockey East quarterfinals. These are the same Warriors who were stuck not long ago in 10-game losing rut, outscored by a hefty 42-12, their season melting faster than Zamboni scrapings on a Hell’s Kitchen sidewalk.

“That included a seven-game road trip that ended with two at Cornell and two at Notre Dame,’’ said Dennehy, the 48-year-old former Boston College defenseman, salvaging a chuckle from the string of drubbings. “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, OK?’’

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But from out of all that, the Warriors found their footing — and perhaps their stride, rubbing out New Hampshire in the Hockey East opening round, two games to one, last weekend.

The turnaround came in pieces, the biggest of all perhaps the formation of a reliable, opportunistic No. 2 scoring line with 5-foot-9-inch waterbug Michael Babcock at center, flanked by power forwards Derek Petti (6-2, 190) and Chris LeBlanc (6-3, 205). Petti, who grew up just down the road in Tewksbury, scored a goal in each of the three games vs. UNH.

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The second round again is best-of-three, and the Friars have home ice at Schneider Arena for all games against the Warriors, beginning Friday at 7 p.m.

Petti and LeBlanc (Winthrop) both played public school hockey — rare nowadays among Division 1 players — though both added to their playing résumés prior to joining the Warriors. LeBlanc, a junior, played a couple of seasons with the South Shore Kings, and Petti, a freshman, spent two seasons with the lesser-known Middlesex Black Bears, a hybrid prep school/junior program headquartered at Governor’s Academy in Byfield.

Babcock, son of Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, played four years at Detroit Catholic Central, then two years in the USHL before arriving here in September.

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“They put Chris with us and right away, and even from warmups, everything just clicked,’’ said Petti. “It’s one of those things, we’ll come off the ice onto the bench and we’ll just laugh, have a good time. We’re not really worrying about anything outside the glass.’’

Another key to the Warriors’ recovery has been the emergence of freshman goaltender Drew Vogler, who took over the starting job from sophomore Collin Delia late in the season. Vogler, who grew up outside St. Louis, was in net for all three games vs. UNH, and will enter the series vs. the Friars with the stingiest postseason goals-against mark (1.57) and best save percentage (.936) of all goalies to make it to the conference quarterfinals.

“I feel like we have two goalies,’’ said Dennehy, noting that Delia has looked sharper in workouts of late, “but you are going to ride a hot one as long as you can.’’

Dennehy, now in his 11th season, said he sees “a little bit of everything’’ in the Petti-Babcock-LeBlanc trio. Initially, he recalled, the entire coaching staff saw that LeBlanc, an Ottawa Senators draft pick, tended to pick up his game when pivoted by the energetic Babcock.

“If you put a GPS on Babs,’’ noted Dennehy, “you’d see he covers every inch of the ice. He just plays the game so hard, and he demands that from his linemates. He’s the straw that stirs the drink.

“So we noticed Chris played harder with Babs, and Chris and Derek kind of had something cooking, so we thought, ‘Why not? Let’s put the three of them together.’

“Derek has a poise about him that is probably beyond his years, and I think a lot of it has to do with when you play public school hockey, you have the puck a lot. He has a lot of inner confidence in his game.’’

Petti was a standout for Tewksbury in the Merrimack Valley Conference, but didn’t think about playing top-level college hockey until he had a 5-inch growth spurt midway through high school. Unsure of where to go, he found his way to the Black Bears, allowing him to sharpen his game for Division 1 and also begin taking college courses before landing on the Merrimack campus.

Ultimately, it was an email to Dennehy from Black Bears coach Alex Moody that opened up Petti’s pathway to Merrimack. Moody touted Petti’s skills, encouraging Dennehy to take a look at the video clip he attached to the missive.

“I rarely watch tapes, because you get so inundated with stuff,’’ said Dennehy. “But for whatever reason, I clicked on it. To be honest, there was nothing dynamic, but Derek just made the right play — he would get the puck and give it to the right guy every time. He has that awareness about him.

“And that little bit of Phil Esposito — you know, moving faster than you think he is.”

Held back in part by injury, Petti scored only two goals in 24 regular-season games and now has a total five to go with eight assists. Babcock is 3-4—7 and LeBlanc 6-6—12.

“Just one of those things that worked,’’ said LeBlanc, explaining the line’s success. “We’re three different type of players and we just had that chemistry that worked from day one. Hopefully it’ll keep working.’’

The task ahead of the Warriors is daunting. The Friars (25-5-4) are ranked fourth in the nation, “and they have a banner,’’ noted Dennehy. The Warriors are 12-17-7 and face a team that beat them twice (2-1 and 4-0) in the regular season.

“We have been playing playoff hockey for the last 6-7 weeks,” said Babcock, noting that Providence was idle last weekend on its first-round bye. “Nothing changes for us.

“We’re not concerned about who we’re playing. We’re concerned how we are playing. We had good and bad games, but we turned it on the last 6-7 weeks.

“We know it’s going to be a hard game, but we are hoping we can surprise some people. I know people can think it is a mismatch, but I don’t think you can count us out.’’

Dennehy agreed that they are playing their best hockey of the season. They survived the midseason doldrums and they’re showing some finishing kick. A little bit of expected rust in the Friars’ game, he figures, could help the cause.

“But hey, I’m an optimist,’’ he said. “That is why I took this job.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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