University of Maine senior Ryan Hegarty and junior Mark Nemec have played together on defense for the better part of three seasons.
They aren’t flashy. They don’t rack up a lot of points. Hegarty has two goals and four assists and Nemec has one assist in 19 games.
But they have been quietly efficient and have been a major key in Maine’s penalty-killing resurgence.
“If you don’t notice defensemen, that means they’re doing a pretty good job,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy, whose seventh-ranked Warriors will host the Black Bears for a two-game set this weekend at Lawler Arena in North Andover, Mass.
The teams will play at 7 p.m. on Friday but Saturday’s game has been switched from 7 to 5 so fans can watch the New England Patriots’ playoff game against Denver. That game begins at 8 p.m.
Maine’s penalty-killing had struggled early but, over the last six games, it has killed off 28 of 31 power plays, or 90.3 percent.
Maine has won five of those six games.
“They have been nothing short of unbelievable,” said Maine sophomore goalie Dan Sullivan, the primary benefactor of the tandem’s play. “They have improved tremendously. When they’re out there, I’m very comfortable. I know they’re going to do everything they can to keep the puck out of the net. They are very in sync with each other.”
Hegarty and Nemec, who will be the first tandem used in a five-on-three disadvantage, said they take a lot of pride in their penalty-killing.
“It’s one of the most important parts of our game right now,” said Hegarty. “We’re the type of team that doesn’t create a lot of even-strength [scoring] chances so special teams play is a real key for us. As important as it is to get power-play goals, it’s just as important to keep power-play goals out of our net.”
Nemec added, “Our power play has been very strong all year and if we can get our penalty kill up to save us a goal each game, that will pay dividends to the team’s success as we move forward.”
Hegarty and Nemec said their familiarity with each other has been a definite plus.
“It’s great. We read off each other very well,” said Nemec.
“It’s really important on the penalty kill, especially when they dump it in [to our zone]. We read off each other so we know what the other guy is going to do and that enables us to be in the right spot,” said Hegarty.
They said the coaching staff has made some adjustments to the penalty-killing system that have been beneficial.
“We have adapted more of a pressure system,” explained Hegarty. “We try to force them to make plays under pressure. If we can get on them quickly, we can force them to make mistakes.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound Hegarty and 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound Nemec have blocked a lot of shots and done a solid job clearing the front of their net.
“It’s a great feeling when you see your teammates sacrificing themselves to block shots. It shows how much the guys on the team want to win,” said Sullivan.
“We try to keep the shot counts down on [Sullivan]. Besides, it only hurts a fifth of the time. It’s not too bad,” grinned Hegarty.