We’re a few weeks into the season and there’s only one Hockey East team that remains undefeated and untied: New Hampshire.
Its three wins are a far cry from last year when the Wildcats buried themselves with a poor start that began with four losses and extended for much of the first half.
“It feels great,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “I think the team is determined. We played well last year at the end, but coming close didn’t cut it for us. We played well, but we lost a tough series against Boston University in the playoffs, and they knocked us out.
“So we were determined to start this season off right and make a statement that our program likes to be competing for the top [of Hockey East] and the NCAA tournament. We missed out last year, so we’re determined to get back in it.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time and worry about Hockey East right now.”
UNH opened the season with a weekend sweep of St. Cloud State, making the Wildcats one of the few Hockey East teams to get off to a good nonconference start. They then got some early-season revenge for getting bounced from last year’s playoffs by BU, defeating the Terriers in impressive fashion, 4-1.
Poor goaltending by senior Matt DiGirolamo over the first half doomed last year’s UNH squad, opening the door for then-freshman Casey DeSmith to take over. He excelled over the second half and hasn’t skipped a beat so far this year.
“When he’s on the ice, he proves himself,” senior John Henrion said after the win over BU. “He’s done an unbelievable job. Everyone in the locker room is really confident that when we make mistakes as forwards and defensemen, he’s going to bail us out. So far he’s done a great job of it.
“It’s always comfortable to have someone like him behind us. So we’re really lucky that he’s playing this well in net.”
DeSmith actually feels less pressure this year now that he’s The Man.
“I welcome the challenge,” he said. “When it’s my net to lose, I definitely know that I have to play well and I feed off that. I work harder, [am] more focused. When it’s my net to lose, I feel that’s a benefit for me and not as much pressure.”
In front of DeSmith, the five veteran defensemen are playing exceptionally well. Sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk is a monster who already has scored two goals and senior Connor Hardowa already has five assists. Freshman Brett Pesce is filling the one hole left by graduation.
“Pesce is as good as anybody as a freshman,” Umile said.
But, to be honest, the defense and goaltending were expected to be good going into the season. The question was where the goal scoring would come from given that Stevie Moses had graduated and the rest of the lineup, as a whole, had struggled to bury the puck.
That doesn’t look like a problem. Against BU, three different lines scored. Three forwards have already scored two goals (and that doesn’t include van Riemsdyk) and another three have recorded singletons. UNH leads Hockey East in overall offense. That’s a phrase that has a familiar ring to it for long-time league observers.
“We knew some of the younger guys were going to score,” Umile said. “The scoring is going to be spread out. We’ve got some balance in our lines, some balance in our scoring. And John Henrion is playing as good hockey as he’s played. We’re generating offense from all the lines.”
The special teams are similarly getting the job done. The power play is clicking at a 21.4 percent rate.
“[We've got] some smart hockey players that move the puck pretty well,” Umile said. “Obviously, the guys are doing a good job. [Associate coach Scott Borek] is working with our power play and he’s got the guys moving the puck well.”
Similarly, the penalty kill is playing UNH’s in-your-face style and keeping opponents off the board 93.3 percent of the time.
“[Associate coach Jim Tortorella] has got the guys pressuring the puck and I think everybody understands and feeds off of each other,” Umile said.
“Our specialty situations right now have been very solid, so we’re pleased with that, power play and shorthand.”
Simply put, UNH looks strong across the board and for 60 minutes a game.
“Our team isn’t just coming out and competing every night,” Umile said. “They’re finishing the game.”
The road was not kind to Hockey East teams last week. Collectively, they posted a 2-6-1 record, with the worst of that (1-4-1) coming outside the conference.
No team exemplified that better than Merrimack, which as part of the Alaska Goal Rush tournament lost to the host Fairbanks team 3-2 and then to Alaska-Anchorage 6-3. Alaska is a looooong way to travel for the sake of two losses.
“No excuses,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “We don’t make them. We knew what we were getting into and our travel was probably as seamless as we could make it. Look at teams’ road records compared to their home records. If you’re a .500 team on the road, you’re doing pretty well.
“The realization I came to on the flight out was how many underclassmen we have. We’ve had a lot of turnover the last two years. Over 60 percent of our lineup is underclassmen. So you say something and you expect them to respond, and then you recognize that they have no idea what you’re talking about. They’ve got no idea.”
Dennehy remains encouraged despite the two losses. Fairbanks also defeated North Dakota, and Merrimack scored three third-period goals against Anchorage.
“The score wasn’t indicative of it, but we played pretty well on Saturday,” Dennehy said. “You’re never happy with a loss, but if we continue to grow like that, which we’re very capable of doing, I’m really going to enjoy coaching this team.”
One positive is that Sam Marotta has taken a couple big strides toward filling the goaltending hole left behind by Joe Cannata. In two games, including the Warriors’ season-opening upset of Union, he’s recorded a 2.02 goals against average and a .940 save percentage. Including his limited action in two seasons as Cannata’s backup, Marotta boasts career numbers of 1.24 and .961.
The other half of the tandem, Rasmus Tirronen (4.36 GAA, .842 save percentage) hasn’t fared that well but may be displaying the rust from seeing no game time at all as a freshman last year.
“Sam’s played well in both the games he’s played,” Dennehy said. “One of the things is that even with Joe Cannata there, he still worked his tail off every day. It’s not like he said to himself, ‘You know, I’m behind an All-American here. I’ll just wait my turn.’
“He worked his tail off and got better. He didn’t just sit back and wait for Joe to graduate. That’s really impressive.
“I don’t think goaltending is going to be a problem for us. Whether it’s Sam or Raz or a combination of both, we’re going to be good in net this year.”
Another encouraging sign is the play of sophomore forward Josh Myers, who has recorded points in all four games, including two goals against Union. Last season, Myers didn’t suit up until Jan. 13 and finished with four goals and two assists in 15 games.
“He got off to a tough start last year because he really didn’t become eligible until the second half,” Dennehy said. “He finished pretty strong for not having started the season with us.
“He’s got absolute wheels. He is as a powerful a skater as I have ever coached.”
Dennehy also expects to get stronger contributions from his freshman class because he brought them in for the summer second semester to get acclimated to the classroom and local teammates. With an easier transition to college life, the rookies should be more productive.
That said, the team stands at 1-3 with a loss in its lone Hockey East game. This weekend’s two contests against Vermont, both at home, may be good benchmarks of where the Warriors are headed.
“Listen, we’ve been on the road the first four games,” Dennehy said. “It’s a results-oriented endeavor. I understand that. It’s about wins and losses.
“But if you look at all the underlying statistics — we had to do this a couple of years ago when we got this thing going — our shots for and against are pretty close. Scoring chances, we’re right there. We just have to continue doing what we’re doing.
“Because we’re so bottom-heavy in terms of all our undergrads, you’re going to see this team just get better and better every week.”
It even happens to the best
So you’re a fourth-round NHL draft pick, the No. 3 collegiate goalie selected. You’re a highly regarded freshman at one of the premier programs in the country and you’re expected to step in and at least share in a rotation for a team that aspires to national championships every season and won one with a freshman goaltender just four years ago. That could well be your destiny in six months.
So your first collegiate game shouldn’t be a big deal. You’ve got a future playing games at the TD Garden. You’ve got a future playing NCAA tournament games, perhaps the Frozen Four. You’ve got a likely future of playing in the NHL.
So a little old regular season game should evoke little more than a smile of expectation. Right?
Not so fast. First-game jitters can happen to any freshman, even the bluest of blue-chip recruits. For a forward or defenseman, the first hit often takes care of those jitters, sending the player into his usual routine, flying about the ice so fast there’s no time left to think, just react.
Not so, goaltenders. There’s no first hit. Maybe a first save. Maybe not. The mental demands of that position set it apart.
Boston University netminder Sean Maguire found that out last Saturday. Playing his first collegiate game at New Hampshire, Maguire lasted only 32:19. He stopped 10 shots; seven got past him, though only four went in the net thanks to the goalie’s best friend, the post. He hardly looked the part of an elite recruit.
“He was fighting the puck from the get-go,” BU coach Jack Parker said after the game. “He looked nervous, a little uptight. I think his confidence level was way down; he didn’t look real sharp from the get-go.”
Not the confidence bordering on arrogance you usually expect from such a player. But a freshman is a freshman as Maguire unfortunately found out.
It’s almost certainly just a bump in the road. He’ll be back out there this weekend, splitting time with fellow freshman Matt O’Connor. And in the end it’ll just be a memory to wince over.
But a painful memory and a lesson learned.
Chris Serino: A Warrior to the end
I know that Jim gave his thoughts last week about the passing of former Merrimack coach Chris Serino, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add some of my own.
I’ll always remember Chris, the caring person. When he found out that my son Ryan played hockey, he’d always ask how Ryan was doing and after a tough loss might say ruefully, “I could have used your kid out there on the penalty kill.”
But I’ll give the floor now to Umile, who knew Chris a lot longer and better than I did, and not just during the seven years they spent together at UNH. Not surprisingly, Umile spoke of Chris in the present tense, which is how we all wish it could still be.
“As a person, you don’t find a more wonderful, caring person,” Umile said. “He did [so much] for people. I’ve known him since high school and competed against him in football and hockey.
“He’s just a wonderful person that’s always done something to help somebody else out. He did an awful lot for me personally as a coach with me here at UNH. He did a great job at recruiting and coaching. He became a baseball coach here.
“He’s been a personal friend of mine and I’m going to miss him dearly. He’s a big loss in the hockey world. He really is. He’s a wonderful, wonderful person.
“I got a chance to spend time with him at the end. He fought a courageous battle. [His funeral] will be a very sad day. Very sad.”
Chris Serino will be missed.
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