TROY, N.Y. — Sunday, Merrimack captured its first tournament championship since the Reagan Administration manned the White House.
But head coach Chris Serino, who in 1986 was on his way to being named Eastern Massachusetts schoolboy coach of the year, was more impressed with his team’s four straight victories than with the hardware it carried home.
“The win streak’s more important,” said Serino after his club soundly defeated Wayne State, 4-1, in the final of the Rensselaer/HBSC Holiday Tournament for the school’s first-ever Division I tourney title. “We’re finding ways to win games, we’re finding ways to play better in big games.”
At the top of that list is senior goalie Joe Exter, who was named the 52nd annual tournament’s most valuable player following his 36-save effort against the College Hockey America conference preseason favorites.
“It’s not just one thing, either, it’s a lot of different things,” surmised Serino, whose club’s win streak is the longest since November 1998, his first at Merrimack. “It’s a lot of kids buying into what we’re doing and playing together.”
It also has a lot to do with outstanding goaltending from Exter, who for the fourth straight start allowed one goal or less.
“We’re an extremely intense team from the minute we get to the rink to the minute we get off the ice,” said Exter, who turned aside 58 of the 60 shots he faced at the Houston Field House. “We’ve learned from everything we’ve gone through in the past. The intensity this team brings to the locker room, to practice, to the rink is what is carrying us through these games.”
With the victory, Merrimack (7-6-3) surpassed the .500 mark for the first time this season, while Wayne State (6-11-0), also known by the Warrior nickname, dropped its fifth game in six outings.
“The MVP is strictly a team award,” said Exter, who in his last eight starts has slashed his goals against average from 4.12 down to 2.50. “I love my team. They do everything they can for me. The thing that they’re doing the most is working hard and working together, which is going to get us to where we want to go.”
Merrimack skated into the first intermission owning a commanding 3-0 lead on goals from opposite ends of its roster spectrum.
North Andover, Mass., native David Breen scored his first career goal 3:10 into the contest, using a backhand swing to bat his own rebound out of midair over the right shoulder of Wayne State goalie David Guerrera (29 saves). Breen snuck in alone behind the defense where fellow freshman Rob LaLonde put a perfect pass in the middle of his blade to begin the sequence.
“The goalie kind of tipped it in the air, but I really don’t remember what happened,” Breen said. “I tipped it over his shoulder, I guess, and just got lucky.”
Serino indicated Breen’s good fortune went a long way to ensure his Warriors would earn their first RPI tourney title in five appearances.
“The huge goal was Dave Breen’s to start the final off,” he said. “We get a little pick-me-up out of our fourth line and it gets us going. I thought (the fourth line) played pretty good tonight.”
So did junior center Marco Rosa, who scored two pretty goals within a 7:40 span to build an insurmountable advantage and earn a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
“They were 0-9 when their opponent scored the first goal,” said Rosa, who was joined on the All-Tourney squad by teammates Exter and defenseman Tony Johnson. “So we wanted to get on them, score a couple of goals and have a little comfort.”
Wayne State head coach Bill Wilkinson confirmed Merrimack exploited his club’s weakness.
“The first period we weren’t really mentally sharp,” Wilkinson said. “We were trying to do a little too much and not play our system, which is really relatively simple. But the more you pass the puck around the more opportunity there is for mistakes to be made. That was really the difference.”
Wayne State senior Maxim Starchenko scored his third goal of the tourney at 10:32 of the second period to cut the deficit to 3-1. But less than six minutes later, Merrimack freshman Nick Pomponio tipped in a Johnson shot on the power play for his first goal since Nov. 1 to give his club back its comfortable lead.
“In the first period, we dug ourselves a pretty big hole by trying to do too much and not just bumping the puck out to the neutral zone,” Wilkinson said. “They took advantage of it. When we had our opportunities in the second and third, Exter made the saves, and we were 0 for 8 on the power play. We had chances, but the goaltender is your best penalty killer.”
In addition to Starchenko, Wayne State placed both forward Nathan Rosychuk and defenseman Tyler Kindle on the All-Tournament Team