In the early stages of his hockey life, Matt Byrnes found that putting up prolific numbers came easily.
A Colorado native, Byrnes moved east with his family to Rhode Island, taking full advantage of his stint at perennial powerhouse Mount St. Charles Academy, where he posted MVP honors in his senior year.
Byrnes’ development shone brightly the following winter when he was named to the Eastern Junior Hockey League Top Prospects Team after leading the Jr. Bruins in goals (40) and points (96). Rightly, the accolades followed the 5-9, 190-lb. forward, to the next phase of his career at Merrimack.
But Byrnes, like many of his fellow teammates in head coach Chris Serino’s sophomore recruiting class, has found that success sometimes can be delayed when taking on the powers that be in Hockey East.
Thursday night, the Warriors suffered a school-record 14th consecutive loss in their final game of the campaign against Massachusetts-Lowell, 5-1.
The defeat gave the Warriors a 1-22-1 slate in conference play.
For highly-recruited players like Byrnes and the five second-year starters who pepper the Warriors’ lineup, the decline in production has made for a long grind.
“I went through a lot of winning programs before I got here,” said the speedy forward moments after watching his season come to a close.
“Totally disappointing, We were set to have probably the best team in our history. We all knew that we had all of the implements.”
Byrnes’ autumn in fact, was indeed off to a decent beginning. He earned Hockey East Player of the Week honors with a three-game point streak in October. A victory over Massachusetts followed, but a string of losses against some of the league’s top competition eventually took the air out of the Warrior ship.
“At the beginning of the season I thought ‘Look at the players we’ve got — there’s no way we can’t have a winning program here. I guess it’s a life lesson you have to look at,” he said. “The way we have to take [the losses], it is maybe we’re not as good as we think we are. It’s an uphill battle, it’s what life’s about.”
Byrnes finished with 2-14-16 stats in 34 contests, finishing out the schedule on the fourth line with sophomore Justin Mills (Edgerton, Alb.) and center freshman Derek Pallardy (Chesterfield, Mo.).
“We [sophomores] all had a pretty decent start. We were cruising, but a lot of us got worn out. We had the most injuries we’ve ever had in Hockey East. We all came to play and we all worked hard, [but] it had to do with all of the injuries and people stepping up to the plate. I know myself, I didn’t step up when I had to.”
“This is a tough league, no doubt,” added Serino. “When Maine, BU, BC and New Hampshire play well … finishing in fifth or sixth place in this league is difficult to do. We’ve all got to get better. When you have a season like this, the blame falls on one place and one place only — and that’s on me. It’s my job to make this team better and I’ve got to sit down and figure out what I did wrong and how I can correct it, and before anybody else, I’ve got to correct it.”
Byrnes, who ended his freshman season with three goals and nine assists in 34 games, said he would have a difficult time during the offseason in anticipation of the start of the festivities in 2005-06. “It feels like the middle of the season,” he said. “I can’t wait for the season to begin.”
Byrnes was teammates at Mount St. Charles with former Bruin Jeff Jillson and current Providence forward Chris Chaput. “I learned how to play with passion at the Mount,” he said.
Byrnes’ development was quickened by Jr. Bruins coaching guru Peter Masters. “That was a great experience. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here.”
Although Byrnes won’t be heading to postseason play, he knows full well what is expected from him next season.
“I got a lot of playing time this year and I don’t think I benefited the team at all,” Byrnes said. “I have to be more of a positive leader on the bench and learn how to step up. It’s all about trust and belief in each other.
“Those are the keys going into next season.”