Before the year started, Hockey East coaches, not to mention this writer, picked Merrimack to finish last.
It seemed eminently reasonable. The Warriors had come within one point of finishing in the cellar last season and that was before losing All-Hockey East center Rejean Stringer (56 points) and Kris Porter (45).
“Being picked last in the Hockey East poll doesn’t surprise me when you lose 80 percent of your offense,” said coach Chris Serino at the time. “This year, we don’t have a 30-goal scorer like a Porter or a 70-point guy like Stringer.
“But we’ve got eight or 10 forwards who could score between eight and 15 goals for us. If they all get in between eight and 15 goals, we’ll really make up for what we lost between Stringer and Porter.”
— Merrimack senior Cris Classen
And with hopes that the returning cast on defense and in goal would solidify, Serino looked for his program to progress in his second year at the helm.
After seven games, however, Merrimack stood at 2-5-0, with its only wins coming against the MAAC’s Holy Cross and last year’s number-one Eastern punching bag, Union. Never mind that Union would soon show that it was much improved. At that point, it looked like two asterisks and five losses.
With the next four games including contests against nationally-ranked Maine and Boston College, Serino’s preseason optimism looked like, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, 50 percent wishful thinking and 90 percent whistling past the graveyard.
Especially considering the final game of those first seven, a 4-2 loss to Boston University. Forget the final score. After 40 minutes, it was 4-0 and BU had just outshot Merrimack, 18-6, in the second period alone. The Warriors looked, to put it bluntly, outclassed, outhustled and out-everything-ed.
Goodbye, hope. Hello, cellar. This was going to be a looooong year.
When Merrimack scored two late third-period goals, it seemed reasonable to write them off as little more than Clearasil on a pimple. A 4-2 score looked cosmetically more pleasing than 4-0, but presumably BU had just gotten sloppy in a contest that it had long since won.
Heck, Serino didn’t even bother to pull his goaltender in the closing minutes. Apparently, a two-goal loss was the best that could be hoped for.
A looooong year.
Now that Merrimack has ripped off a 3-0-1 streak, however, the move looks like a stroke of genius.
“I don’t know if it was a stroke of genius, but I just know it was the right thing to do for my team,” says Serino. “Maybe for someone else’s it wasn’t, but for my team it was. It’s like anything else. When you know your players, you get a feel for them and hopefully you’re smart enough to know what you need to do to help them.
“We hit rock bottom at the end of that second period at BU. That’s the only reason I didn’t pull the goalie. People looked at me, like, ‘This guy doesn’t want to win.’
“I’ll be honest. I didn’t think we were going to win. I wanted to take my team out of that game in the most positive manner I could.
“Sometimes your competitiveness gets in the way of your brain. And I was trying not to let that happen to me in that game.”
With the undefeated defending national champion Maine Black Bears up next, though, it looked like more than positive thinking would be needed just to keep the score close, much less escape with any points.
Instead, Merrimack held a 3-2 lead until a Maine extra-skater goal with 18.8 seconds gave the Black Bears a tie. The Warriors had battled with the number-two team in the country and finished even.
“When the game was over, there were no guys throwing sticks up in the air,” said Serino at the time. “In the locker room there were no guys cheering or patting each other on the back. Maybe that’s the sign of us growing up.”
The tie, albeit one with its disappointing aspects, appeared to be a potential coming-of-age performance.
“You want a coming-of-age game?” said Serino. “Our coming-of-age game is tomorrow night against UMass.”
Merrimack then kept the positive momentum going with a 4-3 win over UMass-Amherst for a three point weekend. With a talent-laden Boston College team on the next weekend’s horizon, however, the possibility of a bubble-bursting shellacking loomed. The Eagles had lost to Northeastern and Maine and seemed likely to vent their frustrations on the outmanned Warriors.
Think again. Instead of acting as an outlet for BC’s frustrations, Merrimack compounded them with a 2-0 win. Two days later, the Warriors duplicated the 2-0 whitewashing, this time against UMass-Lowell.
The back-to-back shutouts were the school’s first in Division I. Even including the dominant D-II years, the last time the feat had been achieved was Nov. 29-30, 1970. Coincidentally, the shutouts by Tom Welby and Cris Classen, respectively, were also collegiate firsts for the two netminders.
“In Hockey East, when you get good goaltending that gives you an opportunity to win,” says Serino. “When you don’t get good goaltending, you can’t win. It’s not possible.”
Welby earned back-to-back Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performances against Maine and Boston College. Classen got the wins against UMass-Amherst and UMass-Lowell, the latter garnering him a share of the league honors with Welby.
Classen’s increased ice time stands in sharp contrast to last year when Welby got the nod game in and game out. After the two split the opening weekend series, Welby started the next 24 of 25 games, with the lone bone tossed to Classen a November game against Army. Not until Feb. 12 against Northeastern did he get another opportunity.
“Tommy is a real good goaltender, but I think I beat him up last year,” says Serino. “I think I let him go too long. He was playing well and he gave us the best opportunity to win, but to be honest, I didn’t have confidence in Cris. I’m not saying something that I didn’t tell him. [But after] he beat Northeastern, then he started to play.”
This year, he has four decisions (2-2-0) to Welby’s seven (3-3-1). In the last four, the two have split the games, 50-50, with Welby getting Maine and BC on Friday night and Classen getting the two UMass schools on the weekend’s back end.
“Does that mean he’ll go every other game now?” says Serino. “Probably not. But if Tommy faces a game like he did against Maine or against BC [facing 46 and 36 shots, respectively], I’m going to use the next guy the next night. But if Tommy gets a 20- or 25-shot night, then I’ll use him again.”
The team’s defensive success is more a collective one than individual. There are no Mike Mottaus on Merrimack. Many forwards in the league will hold an advantage over the Warrior blueliners, but Serino is confident that hard work will still win out.
“We’re going to get beat sometimes in one-on-one situations,” he says. “That’s just the nature of the beast, but if we keep working the way we are, keeping guys around the puck, then even when the [other team] barrages us, we’ll have guys jumping on loose pucks.
“If we put ourselves in an odd-man situation, we’re in trouble. If we put ourselves in an even situation, we’ve got a shot. And even more than even situations, we’ve had a lot of times when they have a two-on-two and it becomes a two-on-four because we’ve got two backcheckers back with them.
“If we keep doing those things and the kids realize their importance, it’ll happen for us.”
In that regard, the team’s recent success has fed the defensive intensity. When a team hits hard times, the backchecking is usually the first thing to go. But when it’s winning, the defensive grind feels worthwhile.
“Guys on the bench are cheering when someone strips the puck on the backcheck,” says Serino. “The other night against BC, Greg Classen took a guy right to the net, right through the net, so he had no play. Guys were cheering, ‘Look at that backcheck!’
“It gets contagious. But you’ve got to win. Winning makes kids believe a lot more. They believe in what we’re doing. They try to do the things we’re doing. But if you don’t win, they start trying to do it their own way.”
The seven-out-of-eight points the last two weekends haven’t necessarily looked pleasing in the box scores. Merrimack has been outshot in every contest, decidedly so in three of the four: Maine (46-26), UMass-Amherst (35-27), Boston College (36-20) and UMass-Lowell (43-16).
The shot totals, however, don’t tell the entire story. Not all shots are created equal. For example, while there were far too many breakdowns against Lowell, the Warriors played a strong game against BC.
Just because Merrimack was outshot doesn’t mean there was necessarily a problem. A team can be successful allowing numerous shots from the outside and from poor angles as long as it can capitalize on a smaller number of quality opportunities.
“Against BC, we played very well,” says Serino. “The shots were lopsided, but the ones we had were good ones. [Against Lowell], we had good shots, just not a lot of them.
“That’s the way we’ve played. That’s smart playing. We’ve done a good job of eliminating the odd -an rushes since the Maine game and [if] you look at the shot charts and they don’t have anything in the slot and everything was outside, [then] we were playing pretty well defensively.”
Of course, a team’s play can always turn around in a hurry. The U-turn may be positive, such as from the debacle against BU to the recent successes, or it may be negative. There’s a fine line separating wins and losses in Hockey East.
“Let’s face the facts,” says Serino. “We’re not the most talented team in the league. We’ve got to battle and we’ve got to grind to win.
“There are two tiers in this league. There are BC, UNH, Maine and maybe a BU or whoever. And then there’s the rest of us. When you play them, it’s real easy to get up for them.
“But we’re all battling for points. It’s very important that you concentrate every game and get the points when you can get them, because they don’t come very easily in this league.”
At 5-5-1 overall and sitting in fourth place in Hockey East, the Warriors have reason to believe that they can keep the puck bouncing their way.
“We’re in a mode right now,” says Serino, “where we’re finding ways to win rather than finding ways to lose. One thing this team has done over the last two and half weeks is they’ve put the individual things aside. All they care about is winning.”
Thanks to Scott Weighart for his assistance.