Ice Hockey, Sports

M. hockey begins challenging stretch vs. Merrimack

At No. 13 Merrimack College tonight. Versus No. 3 Boston College on Friday. At No. 7 University of New Hampshire on Saturday. At No. 10 University of Maine next Friday and Saturday. That is the daunting task staring down the No. 15 Boston University men’s hockey team to close out the month of January.

“I think we understand how important these next two weeks are for Hockey East and for the NCAA Tournament,” said senior co-captain Joe Pereira. “We’re playing to separate the boys from the men…These next two weeks are going to decide if we’re a good team or a bad team, if we’re too young or if we’re ready to play.”

That process begins tonight when the Terriers (10-5-6, 7-3-4 Hockey East) travel to North Andover to take on Merrimack at 7 p.m. Although the Warriors (12-4-4, 6-4-3 HE) are not a traditional powerhouse like BC, UNH and Maine, it would be unwise to think they are going to be any easier of an opponent.

Merrimack is one of the hottest teams in the country, having won five in a row and 10 of its last 12. Included in that nation-best five-game winning streak is an impressive 7-1 beatdown of Maine two Saturdays ago. The Warriors are even tougher at Lawler Arena, where they are 5-1-1 this season and 17-4-2 since the beginning of last season.

“They’re a very, very hard-working, efficient team with a lot of skill,” said BU coach Jack Parker. “We’ll have our hands full. It’ll be a big challenge against a team we’ll be fighting with for top four in this league for the rest of the season.”

The Warriors rank first in the conference in defense (2.05 goals against per game), third in offense (3.40 goals for per game) and second in special teams net (+9). Anchoring that stellar defense is junior goalie Joe Cannata, who leads the league in goals-against average (2.00) and is second in save percentage (.924).

“I think he’s a very good goaltender, number one,” Parker said. “He has good size. He can move. But a goaltender’s usually pretty good if the defense in front of him is pretty good, too, and they’re playing a real solid defensive style. They don’t give up a lot of shots, they block a lot of shots and when you do get it through and he makes the save, they’re really good at rebounds.”

At the other end of the ice, sophomore center Stephane Da Costa is the conductor of the offense. The 2009-10 National Rookie of the Year got off to a bit of a slow start this season with eight points in his first 10 games, but he has been on fire lately, amassing seven goals and 11 assists during a 10-game point streak.

“I think probably the puck just wasn’t going in the net for him earlier,” Parker said. “In general, he’s a terrific player. He’s a playmaker for them. He’s a stem-winder for them. We’ve got to make sure we have our best defensive lines out against him.”

The Terriers and Warriors have already met twice this season, having battled to a pair of ties during a home-and-home series back in November. As has come to be expected in this budding rivalry, both games were physical affairs with plenty of hitting.

“We’re going in knowing it’s going to be a war,” Pereira said. “They’re going to come at us hard and we have to come at them just as hard, if not harder. They like to be physical and we’re going to have to match it and we’re going to have to apply the pressure.”

Game notes
The Terriers are riding their first win streak since October, having beaten the University of Vermont 4-2 last Sunday and Harvard University 5-2 on Saturday…They have scored a power-play goal in consecutive games for just the second time this season. Parker credited the recent success to players moving better without the puck, while Pereira also pointed to the return of junior co-captain Chris Connolly being a big boost…BU has killed off 14 straight penalties, its second-longest streak of the season. It killed 32 straight earlier this season, a streak that came to an end in its first visit to Merrimack…Junior goalie Kieran Millan will start in net for BU, Parker said. He has saved 60 of the 64 shots he has faced in his last two starts.

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