The Last Shall Be First
After his team’s 5-3 upset of Boston University on Tuesday, Merrimack coach Chris Serino was playfully informed that the Warriors were on pace to go undefeated in Hockey East.
“We probably will,” he deadpanned.
After losing a multitude of players from last year’s squad, Merrimack was picked by unanimous acclaim in the coaches’ preseason poll to finish last. (Coaches could not vote for their own team.) Although this writer saw the team finishing eighth ahead of Massachusetts, it still looked like there would be a very healthy gap between the number seven team and number eight. Any of the top seven had a decent shot at home ice in the playoffs, but after that…
The Warriors were simply too young, it seemed. There was only a sliver of experience on the blue line. Depth up front was a major concern. And if you combined that youth with an opening league schedule of BU, New Hampshire, Boston College, BU, and then Providence three times in a row, it looked like a recipe for disaster, discouragement and the depths of Hockey East.
After all, those seven games are against teams currently ranked in the top 11 in the country. Can you say 0-for-7 and pass the aspirin?
Instead, the Warriors look like a quick team with more talent than advertised and the kind of spunk and chemistry that could get them through the inevitable tough times. They’ll still be underdogs in those games, but underestimate them at your own risk, especially in their barn.
“It’s a tough stretch for us,” says Serino. “I hope we play well. [The win over BU] is one game. If I see it two or three games in a row, then I’ll be real happy. It’s a nice thing to see that they’re starting to mature and hopefully they’ll keep maturing.
“The thing I was most pleased with [on Tuesday] was when we had a lead at the end of the game and [BU] pulled their goalie, we kept our composure. We weren’t rattled, just throwing the puck around. We played with poise. That’s what I’m real proud of with a young team like we have.”
With Merrimack off this weekend, the stakes were even higher in the BU contest.
“Beating BU is big for our program, obviously, but beating anybody before a 10-day layoff is big for your team,” says Serino. “To have a young team come in and play well against a nationally ranked team and win a game is going to give them a lot of confidence. In order for us to even get into the playoffs in Hockey East, [we’ve] got to beat somebody we’re not supposed to beat.”
And the Next To Last…
The other consensus last-or-next-to-last team, UMass, had a win that was almost as impressive. Although the opponent wasn’t nationally ranked nor did the win over Rensselaer count in the Hockey East standings, it was every bit as welcome. After taking it on the chin to BC, 6-0, the Minutemen rebounded to a 4-3 win over the Engineers. More importantly, it didn’t merely come as a result of a goaltender stealing a win; UMass outshot its guests, 41-12.
More mature programs might enjoy those kind of shot advantages, but rarely do they occur for those in the building stages, especially with a squad of only five juniors and seniors combined.
“That first game was a real difficult challenge for us,” says UMass coach Don Cahoon. “BC, as everyone expected, is a terrific team. As well as BC played, we also contributed to that lopsided score by self-destructing a little bit. Hopefully, we’ve gotten away from that and are moving towards playing a more consistent style of game and being a little more thorough in our execution.
“We were a little more organized [against RPI] and as a result of that got a lot of chances and played a little bit tighter defensively. That’s clear from the shot ratio.
“At the same time, we’re very young. We make the glaring error every now and then. That’s something we’ve got to work to correct and bit a little more consistent in our play. I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made. Hopefully, that will bode well in our growth and development.”
The Other Seven
In another testament to the league’s depth, Hockey East’s other seven teams all received votes in USCHO.com poll. Massachusetts-Lowell almost made it six teams in the Top 15, but had to settle for being the team below the bar with the most points. The other five teams all rank amongst the top 11 in the country.
Anyone remember the last time a league had all but two of its members garnering votes in the national rankings?
A House Divided
Friday’s BC-Wisconsin tilt promises to have a little extra spice. Ben Eaves, one of the league’s top players last year, has been joined on the Eagles’ top line by his brother Patrick, who has merely won the Hockey East Rookie of the Week award for the past three weeks. Combined with Tony Voce, the trio is one of the most dangerous in the country.
As might befit a freshman, Patrick Eaves is quick to deflect credit.
“They’re both really good players,” he says. “I’m lucky just to be on their line.”
Brother Ben is enjoying every minute of it.
“It’s been a real good start for us,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun, just having the chance to skate together because we’ve played together ever since we were little kids, always trying new moves out and working on new stuff. It’s fun seeing him have a lot of success and I’m happy to be part of that.”
What will be special on Friday is that the man behind the opposing bench will be their father, Mike Eaves, who is in his inaugural season with the Badgers.
“It’ll be a fun night,” says Ben Eaves. “We have a lot of family and relatives flying in for the game. It’ll be fun to get all the Eaves in one building for one night. It’ll be a great time.”
How strange will it be trying to beat your Dad?
“We’re not going to do anything different,” says Patrick Eaves. “We’re just going to take care of business and go have dinner afterwards.”
And be able to gloat about a win?
“Hopefully,” he says.
With a grin, Ben Eaves adds, “Hopefully, we’ll give it to him pretty good. We’ll all be able to go out afterwards and laugh about it and have a good time.
“I’m just really excited for the situation he’s gotten for himself there and for my Mom. It’s going to be a great night.”
Ripping the Zebras
By now, seemingly everyone with USCHO.com in their browser’s list of favorites knows that Merrimack coach Chris Serino called the referee in last weekend’s series at Michigan “incompetent.” According to an article in the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle Tribune by Kevin Conway, a frequent USCHO contributor, Serino also said that Berenson apologized to him after the game for the officiating during the weekend series.
By all accounts — and this writer has heard several of them outside of the Merrimack coaching staff — referee John Murphy was off-the-charts atrocious. It seems likely that Serino was justified in his feelings about his team being given no chance to win because of the officiating.
For a coach to say that publicly, however, is a no-no and Serino was reprimanded by Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna.
Why can’t a coach speak his mind, especially when he might be justifiably incensed?
“It’s pretty much universally accepted that you don’t use the media as a forum to criticize officials,” says Bertagna. “The officials really don’t have the same opportunity on their own and are encouraged by the leagues not to comment unless there are rules changes or something new. So if a coach uses the media, it’s really a one-sided opportunity.
“We’ve had situations in the past where not only did a coach criticize an official for a specific play that he may have thought cost [his team] the game, but when he saw the replay he saw that he was wrong. I’ve had coaches call me and say, ‘I shouldn’t have said it and you know what? He made the right call.’ The correction never gets into the paper.
“I don’t know any league or any level that condones that. That’s not to say that sometimes officials aren’t guilty of having a bad night or two, but there are other ways to do it. You go through the league office or through the supervisor [of officials] and that sort of thing. Coach Serino himself [signed and] turned in the [coaches’] code of conduct, which has that as a major part of it.”
As Bertagna is also quick to point out, Serino has done all the right things in the aftermath.
“I shouldn’t have made a comment in the newspaper about the officiating,” says Serino. “I called the commissioner of the CCHA and apologized to him. He said he had a report on the game. I felt he was well in tune with the way I felt about the game. He was very good.
“But under any circumstances, I shouldn’t make a comment about an official in the newspaper. That’s what the commissioner of Hockey East told me and he’s right.”
When Brent Gough even came near the topic of officiating in the press conference after Tuesday’s win over BU, Serino quickly interrupted and said, “Don’t say a word about the referees!” He even added his favorite adjective for emphasis.
Which is not to say that Serino has lost his sense of humor. When it came his turn to speak after the big win, he paused before opening his remarks.
“The refereeing was awful!” he said.
After the laughter died down, he added what everyone knew all along, “I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.”
What About BU?
The Terriers, picked to finish first in Hockey East, came away with only one-of-four points in games against Vermont and Merrimack that most observers expected them to win easily. The reasons differed from Friday to Tuesday.
“The tell-tale sign here,” said coach Jack Parker after the 1-1 tie with Vermont, “is we had 86 attempted shots: 43 on target; 26 off target, and the goalie played terrific, and he made some great saves. So I was pleased with our effort … not pleased with the outcome.
“But we have to give Vermont a lot of credit after what happened to them last weekend [losing to UNH, 10-0, at home] to come back and play as well as they did. Obviously they got great goaltending this night, and I guess they didn’t get it the last time. They came determined, and they played hard.
“[The 10-0 loss] was a big factor for them in a positive way and a big factor for us in a negative way. I tried to tell them the last few days in practice that this team did not get beat ten-nothing like you would think. They got outshot by about three shots against UNH. They just didn’t get much goaltending from two freshman goalies. The number one goalie played against us, and he played very well. You’ve got to give [UVM coach] Mike Gilligan and his staff a lot of credit to lose like that at home and then come here and play as hard as they did.
“But I like how hard our guys played. But you don’t add up the yardage, you just add up the score. And unfortunately the yardage didn’t help us tonight.”
After the 5-3 loss to Merrimack, however, Parker didn’t even like the yardage.
“Give Merrimack credit,” he said. “They outplayed us. This wasn’t a game where we outplayed them and we let something slip away. They outplayed us. They could have had six or seven more goals, I thought.
“It was a total lack of effort on our part from just about everybody. I thought Freddy Meyer and [Ryan] Whitney had good games for us. I thought John Sabo had a good game. You couldn’t find another player in red who played anywhere near to his capabilities or was mentally ready to play.”
When asked why that was, Parker could only respond, “I have no idea.”
My apologies to those to whom I’ve been slow to respond to. I now have a limited window of time during which I have access to my personal email account and when crunch time hits, I get backed up. I’ll respond sooner or later, but please be patient. The only change is that I’ve stopped notifying those who didn’t win the trivia contest since no one really gets much out of that exchange.
Please continue to write, even those BU fans who were unhappy with my doubts about their team’s number one projection and let me know it. (Come to think of it, they’ve been strangely silent in the past week….) I always welcome messages from old and new friends.
I’m just not as quick as I used to be. Which, unfortunately, can be said in other contexts….
Last week’s question concerned New Hampshire’s walloping of Vermont, 10-0. It noted that over the past 10 years, the Wildcats have put the exact same hurting on two other teams and asked which teams and what season(s).
The answers were Boston College in 1994-95 and UMass one year later. Picking up where he left off last year was Todd Cioffi, whose cheer is:
“Go FSNE-BU Schedule makers! Thursday nights are better than Sunday afternoons! Plus, we can see more games live!”
This week’s question similarly recognizes Providence’s 11-0 whitewashing of Iona and asks what year the Friars last matched that score and who was the opponent? Email Dave Hendrickson’s trivia account with your guesses. The winner will be notified by Monday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Thanks to Scott Weighart for his contribution.