NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — One day after Merrimack head coach Chris Serino had laser eye surgery to correct his vision, he was as excited as a kid at Christmas that he could read his line charts without glasses on his face.
Serino was presumably equally happy with the fact that his distance vision is still hazy — given that his Merrimack team put on a subpar performance Friday in squeaking out a 4-2 victory over Atlantic Hockey entry Sacred Heart. The Warriors scored twice in the final stanza to break a 2-2 tie.
Truth be told, and Serino and his players will admit it, Merrimack was lucky to escape in its home opener. After grabbing a 2-0 lead in the first 3:35 of the first period, Merrimack attempted to put the bus into cruise control only to see Sacred Heart battle back to even the game heading into the second intermission.
“Once you score two goals [to start the game] you really have to focus and get two goals on top of that,” said senior Tim Reidy, who scored two goals in the third period to break the 2- 2 tie, of Merrimack’s mid-game letdown. “I thought we dominated the game except for that [time] after the second goal.”
“We scored early and were forechecking early and then all of a sudden we stopped,” said Serino, who — bad eyesight and all — knew that maybe his club might have scored too early.
Despite the loss, Sacred Heart had nothing to hang its head about. Undermanned talent-wise by Atlantic Hockey’s cap of 11 scholarships compared to the NCAA limit of 18, the Pioneers gave everything they had in their season opener, in particular between the pipes.
Junior goaltender Kevin LaPointe, who for the last two seasons has backed up all-league goaltender Eddy Ferhi, had his 40-save performance go for naught. Despite being beaten twice early, LaPointe settled in and at one point made 22 consecutive saves over a span of 37:36.
“[LaPointe] had a great night tonight, but we knew he would,” said Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah, whose Pioneers have upset the likes of Cornell and Miami and hoped Friday might have been the night to knock off a Hockey East opponent. “He’s been in a lot of big situations and done well, so we have confidence in him.”
LaPointe’s performance overshadowed the first win of the season for Merrimack junior Casey Guenther (19 saves). Similar to LaPointe, Guenther sat for two seasons as backup to standout Joe Exter.
Friday night, the Boissevain, Manitoba, native sported his traditional long blond haircut but took up a position in the crease instead of the corner of the bench, and came up with a handful of big saves when called upon.
“There were a couple of times that we broke down and [Guenther] had to make some big saves,” said Serino. “It’s a good confidence builder for him to get in the game.”
After Merrimack captain Marco Rosa buried Merrimack’s second shot of the game 15 seconds in and linemate Brent Gough extended the lead on a breakaway less than three minutes later, the sparse holiday weekend crowd of 1,143 might have thought they were in for a rout.
But LaPointe began to make some key saves, the Pioneers suddenly had a little jump to their step.
At 7:04 of the first, that translated into a goal when highly-touted rookie Pierre-Luc O’Brien buried the rebound of Ryan Bremmer’s shot from the left point to pull Sacred Heart to 2-1.
O’Brien proved his first goal wasn’t a fluke in the second period, marking his second of the game at 5:23 after a Merrimack turnover left the rookie alone on the doorstep. He fired a wrister over the blocker of Guenther to knot the game at two.
The game stayed that way into the third thanks to LaPointe and a little help from the post. All told, Merrimack rang the iron four times, including a second-period rifle from Steve Crusco that hit both the left post and the crossbar.
In the end, Sacred Heart succumbed to Merrimack’s special teams. Having to kill off eight minor penalties (compared to Merrimack’s three) the Pioneers crumbled in the third.
A minute and 11 seconds in, Reidy buried his first, pushing home the rebound of Crusco’s shot. And with 3:04 remaining Reidy put the game out of question, deflecting home a shot-pass from Rob LaLonde on the man advantage to account for the 4-2 score.
The loss for Sacred Heart comes on the first half of a two-game Hockey East set. The Pioneers travel Saturday to Providence to face the Friars.
Merrimack wins its home opener for the first time since 2000 when the Warriors swept another now-Atlantic Hockey team, Connecticut. Merrimack is idle the remainder of the weekend and will travel to New Hampshire on Thursday to open its Hockey East slate.