Mario Puskarich is the first to say his Vermont Catamounts will not “out-talent” the teams they face, and neither will this weekend’s regular-season ending opponent Merrimack.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe his team can’t win every game they play.
“Both of our teams have to outwork the other team and we’re really similar grinding teams,” the Catamounts junior forward said. “It’s going to be a dogfight because so much is at stake. We’ve had trouble scoring, but the chances have been there.”
Vermont (12-18-3, 6-12-2 Hockey East) holds a two-point lead over host Merrimack (9-16-7, 4-11-2) for seventh place in conference play and home ice for the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.
Friday’s series opener will be televised on ASN.
Puskarich knows if the Catamounts don’t sweep, they can drop as low as 11th because New Hampshire is one point behind Vermont with Connecticut and Maine three points back.
“We can’t afford a loss right now,” Puskarich said. “To get a few extra home games would be huge for our team.”
The Catamounts rank 51st nationally in team offense, scoring 2.18 goals per game and 28th defensively at 2.67 goals per game. Merrimack ranks 28th offensively at 2.56 goals per game and 39th defensively at 3.0 goals per game.
Puskarich may be the key figure in the game.
When he was a freshman he scored the lone hat trick of his career against Merrimack, which helped propel him to become the first Catamount to ever win the Hockey East Rookie of the Year award. That season, he tied for the NCAA lead with seven game-winning goals and scored a team-high 19 goals.
Not bad for a guy who said he wasn’t recruited much until Vermont sought him out at age 20 after playing junior hockey.
Undrafted, he’s one guy who can use the exposure of ASN tonight. The past two summers he’s been recovering from high-ankle injuries and unable to compete in any NHL camps. The ankle injury caused him to miss 12 games last season.
“It’s not worth going if you’re not 100 percent and show what you can do,” he said.
Finally healthy again, he has seven goals and 19 assists to lead Vermont in scoring once again. Last week against Boston College he scored the lone goal in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to conference power Boston College when BC thwarted all three of Vermont’s power plays.
Vermont was unsuccessful on all 14 power plays against BC, a large reason the Catamounts were swept.
“They’re a good team but we obviously had our chances,” Puskarich said. “We just bury them in the net. It’s frustrating sometimes. We’ve had a lot of Grade A opportunities but for some reason we’re not bearing down. We have to finish them.”
Puskarich lists Fort Walden, Fla., as his hometown, but he grew up in Pittsburgh. His family had season tickets for the Penguins until he was 10.
Watching Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby sparked his love for the game.
“I’m still a Penguins fan first but hockey has really grown in Florida with the success of the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning,” Puskarich said. “It’s great to see what Jaromir is doing at his age. With his work ethic he’s been a great role model.”
Merrimack has been a scrappy team all season despite what its record shows.
Against Maine Saturday, the Warriors trailed 2-0 before pulling their goalie and scoring twice to send the game into overtime. Merrimack lost 3-2 in the extra period, but the rally was still impressive.
Brett Seney leads the Warriors with eight goals and 18 assists. He’s also a plus-8 when on the ice. Hampus Gustafsson and Ben Behe also have eight goals to share the team lead.