BOSTON — The Northeastern Huskies came into their Beanpot semifinal game ostensibly as favorites against Boston College but would have been forgiven if they’d considered themselves underdogs.
Forget their number three ranking in the country or their perch atop Hockey East, nine points ahead of the Eagles. Forget their 17-6-2 overall record compared to BC’s pedestrian 11-8-4 or the even more lopsided comparison within the league: 13-4-1 vs. 7-7-4.
This was the Beanpot, and the Garden on the first two Mondays in February almost always ranked as a House of Horrors for Northeastern.
If the Beanpot’s Ace of Clubs was Boston University — an undeniable fact given the Terriers’ 28 titles in 56 years — the Deuce had to be Northeastern. The Huskies had won titles only four times, far behind BU, BC (14 times), and Harvard (10). Since the heady decade of the 1980s when they won all four of their championships, they hadn’t won a semifinal game against a team not named Harvard, the other recent perennial also-ran.
Last season, Husky hopes also ran high as they’d only begun a downward spiral from their lofty national rankings. Playing Harvard, the one foe that claimed the fewest bogeymen in Northeastern’s Beanpot closet, Northeastern laid an egg. By the time the game was seven minutes old, Harvard led 3-0.
At the end of the game, NU coach Greg Cronin said, “They smashed it down our throats.” He went on to add, “We had over 3,000 people in the building, and I want to apologize to them.”
Based on the philosophy once bitten, twice shy, this year’s Northeastern fans had a right to ignore the rankings and standings. Common sense told them to worry. One supporter confessed before the game, “Out of all the years I’ve been coming here, this is by far the most nervous I’ve ever been.”
No longer the underdog, a role that had become as comfortable as an old pair of slippers, the Huskies had donned the shoes of the favorite and found them tight and not at all broken in.
“The drought that Northeastern has experienced over these years weighs on us,” Cronin said after the game. “They’re kids. You can’t filter out the media attention.”
So he told his team to forget about the bogeymen in the closet and just play. Ignore the past results, the media, and even this year’s result.
“The Beanpot is a game,” Cronin said. “All the media attention and the national spotlight can become larger than the game. I asked them to focus on playing the game and executing the game plan.” He told them, “Whether you win or not, just do the best that you can. Don’t get caught up in the whirlwind media attention and the pressure.”
The sage advice proved easier said than done. In the opening minutes, the guts still churned. BC was, after all, the defending Beanpot champion, not to mention defending national champion.
Not until senior Ryan Ginand scored his league-leading 18th goal at the 3:24 mark did the curtain of doubt part.
“We were tense early, you could feel it on the bench,” Cronin said. “[The players] can say all they want about how they were confident, but they were nervous early. I could feel it. Human emotion spread through the bench and there were some nerves there.
“[But] Ginand has got the Midas touch. I told him if he was at the blackjack table he should double down every time he gets a hand because he’s scoring goals left and right. When he scored that goal, it injected a lot of believability into us.”
The already raucous Northeastern cheering section became even more deafening.
Although BC rebounded with an extra-skater goal on a delayed penalty, Greg Costa sent Northeastern into the first intermission with a confidence-reinforcing lead.
The Huskies then blew the game open in the second period, scoring three times, twice when BC goaltender John Muse got caught out of the net, to make it 5-1.
When a fracas broke out near the end of the period and chants flew back and forth from the BC and Northeastern ends, Husky fans could let loose with a silencing jeer they’d heard all too often in the past.
Clearly, 2009 was not going to be like 2008 or 2007 or all those others.
“Last year, I don’t think we necessarily knew how to win,” goaltender Brad Thiessen said. “That’s something that comes with experience. At colleges like BC or BU, kids go there and put on the jersey and it’s expected that they have that in them, that they’re going to win.
“At Northeastern that’s what we’re trying to do, to instill that in our program as well to go out there and believe that we’re going to win every night.”
That mission came closer and closer to being accomplished as the jubilant crowd counted down each minute that passed in the third period.
Finally, the fans, all worries cast aside and flushed with the exuberance of a 6-1 lead, began the most confident of Beanpot chants.
“We want BU!”
Next Monday, playing once again in the stratosphere of an 8:00 Beanpot game, the Huskies will get BU, like it or not.
As the Northeastern fans chanted to their few remaining BU counterparts, “See you Monday.”