Amidst all the preseason focus on expected wins and losses, the one W the entire league hopes for is in coach Chris Serino’s battle with throat cancer. If Serino defeats the disease, it will be a successful season no matter what the standings say.
That said, Merrimack fans can hope for a huge victory off the ice for their coach and a lot of big victories on the ice, too. Last year, the Warriors finished in eighth place, only a point out of the cellar. However, that position was also only six points removed from fifth place and 10 points from playoff home ice. The doormat days are long gone.
“The optimism around the program is higher this year than it’s ever been,” says associate head coach Mike Doneghey. “Last year, we brought in 10 freshmen and we had to do a lot of teaching. This year there are two or maybe three [new] guys who are going to be in the lineup. Other than that, it will be sophomores, juniors and seniors, so the teaching will be more fine-tuning.”
The strength begins at forward where Merrimack will have a legitimate candidate for Hockey East Player of the Year in Anthony Aquino. Only Providence’s Devin Rask scored more points among returning forwards. However, to assume that Aquino’s line amounts to a-superstar-and-two-pylons is to make a big mistake.
Dubbed the Ba-Da-Bing Line by the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune‘s Kevin Conway, it also includes sophomore Marco Rosa and senior Nick Parillo. Rosa proved to be a skilled player himself in his first year and Parillo’s 16 goals didn’t all come on easy tap-ins set up by Aquino. Parillo’s excellent speed and nonstop work ethic make him a constant threat.
Ryan Kiley, who contributed 11 goals last year, is the only other proven returning scorer, but Matt Foy is another highly-regarded, younger recruit out of Ontario following in Aquino and Rosa’s footsteps. He’s expected to make an immediate impact along with Taras Foremsky, an older winger from Alberta.
“As of right now, [the Ba-Da-Bing line] is not together,” says Doneghey. “At first when we got back to camp, we had them together and they didn’t miss a beat after the whole summer. If need be, we can go back to them [as a line].
“[But for now] we’ve kept Rosa and Aquino together and put Foremsky with those guys. On the second line, we have Ryan Cordeiro, who transferred in from New Hampshire, centering Parillo and Foy. We’re strong down the middle. I think that our top two lines can skate with anybody in the league.”
Cordeiro may be a bigger contributor than he showed at UNH since his hard work along the boards may be better suited to Merrimack’s rink than the Olympic sheet in Durham.
“He’s a helluva hard worker,” says Doneghey. “I think with Ryan it all depends on what type of role you use him in. He’s not going to be a first-line skill guy who’s going to put up 50 or 60 points. But he can be a second-line or third-line center and maybe get 30 to 35 points.
“We think that he can do some things. We know he’s going to kill penalties. He’s a hard-nosed kid who’s going to be in your face all over the ice.”
Defensively, the Warriors should be much improved over last year’s unit, which allowed more goals per game than any other Hockey East team. Blue line leader Stephen Moon graduated, but seven defensemen who saw considerable ice time return along with Darren Clarke, who was injured early but has the potential to be a very good one.
“Last year we had five freshman defensemen who played every night,” says Doneghey. “With the extra experience alone, they’re going to be better.”
Actually, that experience began to pay dividends late last season. The final two regular-season games were a 1-1 tie with Maine and 3-2 win over Boston University. Then, facing a juggernaut Boston College team in the playoffs, the Warriors surrendered only a fluke goal in a 1-0 loss and were down only 2-1 the following night with three minutes to play.
“At the end of the year, our defensemen took it to another level,” says Doneghey. “That’s probably because Darren Clarke was our oldest defenseman coming in last year and he was injured so he didn’t get to play. Other than that, we had 19-year-old kids who were coming out of prep school.
“Hey, you’re in Hockey East now. You’ve got to play! Once they got adapted to the league and the schedule, it showed.”
— Merrimack associate head coach Mike Doneghey, on adapting the Warrior freshmen to the college game.
Goaltender Joe Exter earned Hockey East All-Rookie Team honors last year and will likely shoulder even more of the load this season. Tom Welby has graduated, leaving behind senior Jason Wolfe and freshman Casey Guenther to compete for backup minutes.
“I think Joey Exter is probably one of the top four goalies in the league,” says Doneghey. “He was a game under .500 and we were [six] games under .500. His save percentage was 91.
“Plus, he sat out the whole year before so he was not only a freshman playing-wise, but he hadn’t had the luxury of playing anything the year before besides practice. Now he knows the league and he knows the shooters. He’s a year older and he’s actually going to be an assistant captain.
“I expect Joey to play a lot, but I also expect between Jason Wolfe and Casey Guenther to maybe give Joey a night off here and there. I don’t want to get in a situation where Joey has to play 30 of the 34 games. I’d like him to maybe play 24 or 25 games and maybe the other nights for those two guys to step in. But if they can’t, Joey is used to playing a lot of games.
“Casey has to get a little bit stronger. He’s a Canadian kid and they don’t lift a lot of weights out in Manitoba where he’s from. But he’s got all the tools. He’s quick laterally.
“Jason is a senior, so maybe the bell has gone off in his head and maybe he can do some things for us, too.”