BOSTON — It’s been nearly two years since Greg Cronin coached arguably the biggest game of his career.
This wasn’t an NCAA tournament game or a Hockey East title game.
Rather, it was the 2009 Beanpot championship game, when Cronin’s Northeastern Huskies faced off against the Beanpot’s royalty, Boston University.
The stage was set for the ultimate showdown. The Terriers entered the game ranked No. 1; Northeastern was enjoying its best ranking in school history, sitting No. 3 in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. The two teams were in a battle for the top spot in the Hockey East standings and both were considered possibilities to win the NCAA championship.
On this night, Feb. 9, 2009, those similarities ended. This was the Beanpot, the tournament that BU owned. Entering that game, BU had won the Beanpot title 28 times, including 14 times since Northeastern last hoisted the trophy in February 1988. Northeastern was the picture of Beanpot futility with just four titles in the tournament’s history, all coming in a nine-year span between 1980 and 1988.
Northeastern, though, was full of hope. It was in the midst of one of the best seasons in program history. It had absolutely destroyed Boston College, the defending national champion, 6-1, a week earlier in Beanpot semifinals.
For nearly two-and-a-half periods, the 2009 championship game lived up to all the hype. Every BU punch was met with a Northeastern counterpunch, and vice versa. The Huskies trailed, 3-2, in the third but were in position to tie the game on the power play with less than seven minutes remaining.
And then the Beanpot gods, the same gods that had thrust years of frustration of the Huntington Avenue campus, struck.
“In the third period we controlled that game and we got a power play. Everybody was anticipating a tie because it was 3-2,” said Cronin. “And in that minute they scored two short-handed goals.”
Two shorthanded goals. As rare as one might be, two on the same two-minute minor penalty is seemingly unheard of. But that’s exactly what BU did. David Warsofsky provided the first one, sniping a perfect shot on a two-on-one. Then 30 seconds later, Kevin Shattenkirk skated on an identical odd-man rush and this time decided to pass to Colin Wilson, who buried a one-timer.
Game over. Hopes dashed. Futility continues.
For both teams, the 2009 Beanpot final was a harbinger of things to come. BU went on to win the Hockey East regular season title, edging out Northeastern by a single point in the final standings. The Terriers captured the Hockey East title and then, as some may recall, rallied from two goals down late in the NCAA title game to win the national championship for the first time since 1995.
Northeastern followed up its Beanpot final loss with a loss on the final night of the regular season to fall short of the Hockey East regular season title. It then fell short in the Hockey East semifinals, surrendering a late lead to an upstart Massachusetts-Lowell team before losing in overtime.
And the curtains fell on what once felt like the season of destiny for Northeastern in the opening game of the NCAA tournament when it surrendered two goals in the final four minutes against Cornell to lose, 3-2.
Rough roads getting smoother
Since the 2008-09 campaign came to an end, it’s been rough riding for the Huskies. Goaltender Brad Thiessen left at the end of the season to sign a professional contract. The standout rookie on that team, Steve Quailer, missed all of last season with injury and thus far this year hasn’t come back to his game.
Northeastern finished last year’s campaign just four points out of third place but at the same time missed the playoffs in arguably the most competitive Hockey East race ever. This season began with more bumps in the road that one could imagine, capped off by three straight losses at home to Atlantic Hockey teams, games usually put on the schedule to build the team’s confidence.
By Nov. 12, the Huskies compiled a 1-5-2 record and were about to travel to Maine, which one weekend earlier had thumped one of the nation’s top teams, North Dakota.
When the Huskies boarded the bus back to Boston after two losses to the Black Bears, one might have thought things had grown worse. Not so, though, said Cronin, who counts the Maine weekend as his team’s turnaround.
“When we went up [to Maine] we lost but they began to realize that if we do a couple of things right, we could be a pretty good team this year,” said Cronin. “We just played well [in that series]. We played hard. We seemed to get an identity that weekend.”
Cronin credits his top line of Wade MacLeod, Tyler McNeely and Steve Silva for helping turn things around. They never let things become negative in the locker room, according to Cronin, and they did their best to lead by example.
“They’re pretty battle-tested guys. They were recruited when the team wasn’t very good. They’ve had a real belief in what they’re doing,” said Cronin. “They were angry at the outcome of the [early] games. But they never lost any hope that we were going to be OK.”
Since that weekend in Maine, the Huskies have lost just four times, three of them by a single goal, including Friday’s overtime loss to Merrimack. As they enter Monday’s Beanpot, this is hardly the team that skated on the TD Garden ice on the second Monday of February 2009. Yet, still, for a team that hasn’t won this tournament in its last 22 tries, the Huskies may be the team that no one wants to face.
The path to return to the final is by far the easiest. Northeastern faces Harvard — statistically much preferred to No. 1 Boston College or No. 14 BU — in Monday’s first semifinal at 5 p.m. EST. The Huskies beat the Crimson 3-0 earlier this year.
The Crimson comes into the Beanpot with just four wins on the season and an offense ranked dead last in the nation, scoring just 1.86 goals per game.
And as anyone familiar with Beanpot history knows, if you can get to the finals, anything can happen.
Path to redemption?
As ugly as the Beanpot has been to the Huskies, this year’s edition comes at a crossroads of Northeastern’s season. The confidence that could come from winning on such a big stage isn’t lost on Cronin.
“[The Beanpot is] unlike anything these kids face,” said Cronin. “We played in the NCAA tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich., and it was like playing at Arlington High School. There was nobody there. It’s a letdown. The Beanpot, though, is its own tournament. There’s so much energy, so much history.”
The energy behind the Huskies is amplified most Beanpot Mondays because of the team’s struggles in the tournament. Generally, all of the fans, excluding those cheering for NU’s opponent, pull for the Huskies.
“Whenever Northeastern plays in [the Beanpot] there’s a lot of support for us, a lot of energy directed at us,” said Cronin.
Cronin hopes that the support and positive energy can translate onto the ice, particularly for the plethora of young players on this year’s Huskies team.
“I think the formula [for winning] is managing the magnitude of the game. You have to focus on what you have to do to be successful,” said Cronin. “You can say that to them a dozen times, but usually the young guys get really affected by the event. That’s where you just have to do a good job coaching.
“It’s like boxing. You fight through the first round and then you’re back to being a human again. You’re so jacked up and you’re so nervous, so when everybody gets through their first shift, they settle down. Those feelings, though, are amplified in the Beanpot and it’s just something you have to manage.”
Twenty-two years is a quite a long time for a team to go without winning the Beanpot. It’s the second-longest streak of futility in the tournament behind the 27-year run Northeastern suffered before winning its first Beanpot title in 1980.
That hasn’t stopped Cronin from imagining what a Beanpot win could mean to this school.
“I think it would be like when the Red Sox won the World Series [in 2004],” Cronin said. “A real Mardi Gras celebration took place. I think the same celebration would take place on campus. You can’t describe it. The school wants to win it right from the president down to the guy playing the tuba in the band. We want to win it. It’s been too long. Myself, I’m tired of hearing about it. We just want to win the thing.”
And if the Huskies hoist the Beanpot around the TD Garden ice two Mondays from now, there is one more thing that will be certain: Greg Cronin will have coached and won the biggest game of his career.