Quick starts to games, season have Northeastern capturing attention

I wasn’t even able to write my first column of the season before the league proved once again parity will be its middle name.

Whether it be Northeastern’s upset of No. 1 Boston College, last-year’s cellar dweller Vermont’s ability to grab a road tie with No. 6 Massachusetts-Lowell or New Hampshire’s early season sweep of St. Cloud State, there is plenty to talk about this week in Hockey East.

How, though, can I not begin with the biggest upset of the season (yes, I know, the season is two weeks old).

The quick starters

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan emphasized one thing to his team: It needs a quick start.

The Huskies took that message to heart with a win over No. 19 Merrimack and the grand-daddy of upsets against No. 1 Boston College.

Both wins mean a significant amount to the program that missed last year’s playoffs. But to Madigan, it is the team’s ability to follow through on its main objective that matters the most.

“Our focus on the season was to have a good start,” Madigan said. “The last couple of years as a program, we’ve gotten off to slow starts — 1-8-1 and 1-7-2 — so it was a focus of ours in the first 10 games to have a good start and do as much as we can right.”

That fast start hasn’t just applied to the season; each of Northeastern’s first two games has produced a quick offensive start as well. The Huskies jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead on Merrimack and a 2-0 margin on Boston College.

“We’ve emphasized it too much,” Madigan laughed. “For the first 10 games there is a focus but success is built from game to game, then period to period so our goal has been to have a fast start the first five minutes of the game and try to establish our style for the first 20 minutes.

“Any other club has the same focus, but our kids have just been successful at the way they start the game.”

A major part of the Huskies’ success has been the play of the team’s rookies. Northeastern was lucky to grab a blue-chip recruit in Kevin Roy, who already has two game-winning goals to go along with an assist. But Northeastern’s rookies have chipped in nine points in the first two games, a positive sign for things to come.

“We’ve gotten contributions from the freshmen,” Madigan said. “But even those who haven’t put points on the scoreboard have contributed. Whether it be killing penalties or blocked shots. It’s good to have our upperclassmen provide the leadership and on the ice we have freshmen paired with upperclassmen.”

If any area should have been solid entering the year it is goaltending with senior Chris Rawlings looking to return this program to one of greatness.

Through two games, Rawlings has allowed just three goals while making 63 saves, numbers that prove the focus is there for this netminder.

“He has to be focused,” Madigan said. “And focus has been important because the first two games have resembled one another. In the first period of each game, we carried the play and then in the second period the two opponents came back at us.

“But in the third period, Chris had to be focused in the third period making saves in both games. It’s hard as a goalie when you don’t get a lot of shots in the first period. But, mentally, you can tell that’s where the focus has been.”

There is little doubt that if this consistent, strong play for Northeastern continues, a lot of people who picked Northeastern to finish low in the league may end up with mud on their collective faces.

A tie that is better than a tie

Northeastern wasn’t the only team that missed the playoffs a season ago to enjoy some sort of satisfaction last weekend.

Vermont, which is coming off its worst season since joining Hockey East in 2005, faced a tough opening game on the road against last year’s Cinderella team, Massachusetts-Lowell.

Plenty of questions surrounded this team entering the season. The club lost its top two assistants to Massachusetts and also watched Sebastian Stalberg and incoming freshman Zemgus Girgensons sign NHL deals.

Add that Vermont has little returning experience in net and it was easy to automatically pick against the Catamounts last Friday night.

But we should all know better by now. Tell a team they can’t and most times they will.

Vermont somewhat followed that mantra, falling behind 1-0 before erasing the single-goal deficit in the third to earn a 1-1 tie.

“I don’t think anyone is excited about a tie, it’s more how we went about it,” coach Kevin Sneddon said. “The process is what was satisfying. Coming back on the road in the first game of the year, I thought we managed the game well.”

Part of that management was the ability of the team to stay positive and strong during momentum swings, something that seemed to plague the Catamounts a season ago.

Add to that a spectacular, 38-save effort by freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman and the tie suddenly may have seemed like more than just a single point in league play.

“Brody Hoffman is a very good goaltender,” Sneddon said. “He’s not had a goalie-specific coach in his career, so his learning curve is still on the upward trend.

“I have been really impressed by all of our goaltenders, but with [Hoffman] how composed he is and how strong mentally he is. For him to step in in a crazy environment, for him to stay calm and poised throughout that game and going into overtime in his first college game, he was excellent.”

Though only one game into the docket, it’s difficult to say how good this Vermont team will be. But speaking to Sneddon, you have to feel that this team has a determination and resolve to be better this year, particularly given the team’s losses and challenges in the offseason.

“There are things you can control and can’t control,” Sneddon said. “One of our coaches got a head coaching job is a very positive thing and [the players] don’t have control over that. They were happy for him. Then when the entire [remainder] of the staff left, they looked at that as possibly an opportunity.

“They turned what could’ve been perceived as a real negative, they looked at it as a positive.

“I think these guys did a really good job of staying mentally focused in the offseason and throughout the fall. They believe they have a job to do and nothing is going to throw them off track.”

Heavy hearts

While we should be celebrating the beginning of another hockey season, many in the Hockey East family are mourning the loss of former Merrimack head coach Chris Serino.

After a long battle with throat cancer, Chris lost his fight on Monday night.

Serino was a coach at Merrimack from 1998 through 2005. Known most for his straight-shooting personality, Serino always struck me as someone who watched out for the little guy.

My first encounter with him was his first game as head coach in 1998. It was also my season opener in my first full year with USCHO. After the game, I asked a question about a blue-collar versus white-collar approach to the game, noting that his team seemed like one that had more hard workers than superstars.

The question was one that came from a somewhat naïve and clueless young writer’s perspective. I probably wanted to hear myself ask what I perceived as a smart question more than anything else.

Chris Serino made me feel brilliant. Never at a loss for words answering the question, Serino told me that he had been trying to engrain that attitude in his team. Whether that comment was sincere or whether he was trying to make a young writer feel good, his efforts gave me a lot of confidence.

I can tell you that one weekend around Chris Serino stands out as the most memorable weekend in my 15 years as a writer. When goaltender Joe Exter was felled by a hard collision with Boston College’s Patrick Eaves on the opening night of the 2003 Hockey East playoffs, Serino was forced to show all of his true colors.

I won’t forget Serino, with his star goaltender lying in a coma, addressing the media the next afternoon. He cried. Many in the room cried. But in no time before and no time since have I ever seen a head coach lay his pure emotions on the table in front of a room full of media, parents and friends.

That day spoke volumes to me and probably produced the column, to this day, that I am most proud of. More importantly, it showed how one fiery coach could be moved to tears and had no problem displaying his emotions.

I hope someday another coach like Chris Serino will come along. Until that day, the hockey world will be absent one of its good guys. Heck, from this day forward, the hockey world will be missing one of its good guys. RIP, Coach Serino.