While the Merrimack men’s hockey team is working to return to its winning ways of the 2022-23 season, forward Matt Copponi has picked up where he left off.
After registering 14 goals and 15 assists as a sophomore, the Mansfield native has 3 goals and 9 assists through the first 10 games for the Warriors, and has recorded at least one point in nine straight games.
His assist in Wednesday’s 1-1 tie with UMass Lowell demonstrated his value. The River Hawks were up late, 1-0 and on a power play when Copponi blocked a shot just as the penalty was set to expire. He then tracked down the loose puck as it caromed back toward center ice and took off, firing a shot on goal.
Lowell goalie Henry Welsch made the save, but the rebound kicked out to Michael Citara, who had come streaking out of the penalty box and blasted it in for the equalizer with less than four minutes remaining. Citara would score in the shootout as well as the Warriors got the extra point.
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Copponi. After not hearing his name called in the 2021 and 2022 NHL drafts, he was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the seventh round last June.
“I thought he should have been drafted after his freshman year, and I was shocked he got drafted so late last June,” said Merrimack coach Scott Borek. “He’s explosive and competitive. His motor is high end, and that’s what I think people missed on him.”
Copponi tried to maintain an even keel as the draft approached, and had spoken with a number of teams ahead of June.
“I had a pretty good feeling going into it that someone was going to pick me,” said Copponi. “I didn’t know where, but I kind of had it in the back of my head thinking it could happen.”
For now, the focus is on getting the Warriors back on track. Expectations were high after Merrimack went 23-14-1 last season and qualified for the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national champion Quinnipiac. The Warriors had also reached the Hockey East championship game, thanks to Copponi’s double-overtime winner against Lowell in the semifinals.
But injuries have played a role in the team’s 4-5-1 start. Senior Alex Jefferies, the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 27 assists last season, missed the first five games but registered his first career hat trick in just his third game back last weekend.
“We had a great year last year, but that’s only because we believed in ourselves,” said Copponi. “The biggest challenge for us is continuing to believe that we belong here. We’ve got a group that wants to win and we’re going to do what it takes to win.”
There are two matchups with ranked opponents squaring off this weekend.
Providence is in first place in Hockey East and fifth nationally after sweeping Northeastern last weekend and will conclude its series with No. 15 UMass Saturday at the Mullins Center.
Friars coach Nate Leaman became the winningest coach in program history, passing Lou Lamoriello with his 249th victory against the Huskies.
“I’ve always respected Nate, and how his team plays,” said UMass coach Greg Carvel. “They are very consistent. We’ve built a friendship, and I think we just have a real mutual respect for each other.”
Both programs have appeared in two Frozen Fours in the last decade, with each winning a championship.
“I think it started as a rivalry, and it’s grown into a lot of respect,” said Leaman. “[Carvel]’s a very good coach. He has a good program. We recruit against him a lot. But it’s grown into a lot of respect that we have for them and the way they run the program and play the games.”
After taking 4 of 6 points from Boston College, Maine moved up to ninth and travels to No. 8 Boston University for a pair of games beginning Friday at Agganis Arena.
Boston University coach Jay Pandolfo was a freshman on the Terriers’ squad that handed Maine its only loss of the 192-93 season as the Black Bears went 42-1-2 to win the NCAA tournament. Two years later, it was Pandolfo and the Terriers who were NCAA champs, beating Maine 6-2 in the title game.
“We’re certainly looking forward to this weekend. It feels a little bit like the old days,” said Pandolfo. “It was a pretty big rivalry back then. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I know Maine travels pretty well with their fans.
“They’re a very good team. They’re playing well.”
Beanpot tickets will go on sale Monday at 10 a.m. at Ticketmaster.com. Harvard will face Northeastern in the opener on Feb. 5, followed by Boston University against Boston College in the nightcap. The consolation and championship games will be played Feb. 12.
This season will also mark the first time the women’s championship and consolation games will be played at TD Garden on Jan. 23. The women’s semifinals will be held Jan. 16 at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center.
Follow Andrew Mahoney @GlobeMahoney.