The fact that the Merrimack men’s hockey team checked in for the national rankings last week at No. 19 may have been a surprise to some. The Warriors had won five in a row before dropping a 3-2 decision at UConn last week. Included in that run were home-and-home sweeps of Hockey East foes Providence as well as first-place UMass Lowell.
After starting the season 3-6, Merrimack has turned it around and is now 12-11-1 and very much in the thick of things for Hockey East.
“I was disappointed with how we started, frankly. I thought we’d start better, but we didn’t,” said fourth-year coach Scott Borek. “I felt really good about our group. I think we have depth in all positions, and we have a situation where we’re competing in practice for ice time, and that’s helped make us a better hockey team, and now we’re seeing the results.”
That depth is revealed in goal, where 6-foot-8-inch freshman Hugo Ollas (6-4, .913 save percentage) and 6-2 sophomore Zachary Borgiel (6-6-1, .896) have been sharing the workload, something Borek may continue to do for the rest of the season, particularly in home-and-home situations. to give two different looks for Warriors’ opponents.
“When you play against Hugo, you have one set of problems, most of it is, he’s big, he’s able to cover a lot of net,” said Borek. “He’s pretty athletic for that size. Then you face Zach, and you’ve got a different set of problems.”
Forward Liam Walsh (6-14—20) is part of a talented junior class that saw plenty of time as freshmen, and now that experience is paying off. The Bridgeville, Pa. native was named the conference’s player of the month in January with 10 points in eight games. It was the first monthly award for the Warriors this season.
“Liam does an awful lot of things for us,” said Borek. “I think in the past people recognized him as a really strong, 200-foot player who was a really good defender as a center, but I think what has people noticing him is he’s also been pretty productive for us at the same time. He’s a good player, really honest in his game and his work ethic and how he goes about things. When a player like that gets rewarded, it’s good for everybody, and we’re really happy to have that happen for him.”
Borek points to juniors Declan Carlisle, Zach Uens and Zach Vinnell as anchors for the defense. Carlisle enters the weekend with the league lead in blocked shots (53) and tied for the lead in plus/minus at +19.
“Those three guys have lifted our team,” said Borek. “Carlise might be the most underrated player I’ve ever coached.”
Merrimack will be busy this week, hosting New Hampshire on Friday, Maine on Saturday, and UConn on Tuesday.
Strong effort from Wildcats
UNH (12-11-1) had a five-game winning streak, including a home-and-home sweep of Boston College, before it also lost at UConn. The Wildcats outscored opponents, 25-10, in that six-game span.
Freshman Colton Huard was named the conference’s defender of the month, his 9 points ranking fourth among all NCAA defenders in January, while his 1.66 points per game was first nationally among all freshmen. The Welland, Ontario native is on a six-game point streak with four goals and six assists in the span.
“It’s always nice when anyone is recognized from your program,” said UNH coach Mike Souza. “Certainly proud of him. He’s receiving a lot of accolades lately, and rightly deserved. He puts in a lot of extra work. Those are the type of kids you want. You want kids that, you give them the resources, they take advantage of them.”
Senior forward Jackson Pierson leads the team with 18 points and 11 goals.
After traveling to Merrimack, UNH will host UConn Saturday night.
Tough decision for BU coach
Boston University (13-10-3) takes on Maine (4-14-4) Friday night for its first game since goalie Drew Commesso left to join the men’s Olympic team in Beijing. The team, which has gone 9-1-1 in its last 11 games, will now turn to either junior Ashton Abel or sophomore Vinny Duplessis, a decision coach Albie O’Connell was looking to make Thursday night.
“Both guys are pushing for the job,” said O’Connell. “I think at the end of [Thursday], we’ll have a better feel, but both guys have played well all week, but then it’s going to go on who do we feel gives us the best opportunity to win the game.”
Duplessis has made two starts this season after going 4-1 as a freshman, recording 40 saves in his debut, a 3-1 win over No. 1 Boston College. Abel came in as a freshman in the second semester two years ago and started eight games for the Terriers, including a season-high 35 save effort in BU’s double-overtime win over Boston College in the Beanpot semifinals.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.