BOSTON — For the first time in 25 years, the Northeastern Huskies will be appearing in back-to-back Beanpot championship games. Coincidentally or not, the last time that happened, the Huskies won their last title.
Does this team have what it takes to be a Beanpot champion?
Semifinals: Feb. 3
• Third place: Harvard 6, Boston University 2
• Championship: Boston College 4, Northeastern 1 | Once again, Boston College finds another gear to extend Beanpot stranglehold | For Northeastern, more than a quarter-century of close calls but no Beanpot titles
Clay Witt has emerged to be one of the top goaltenders in the country. He’s posted the top save percentage (.945) among qualifying netminders, one of the top GAAs (1.94) and, most importantly, makes the big saves at the key times that result in wins (14-6-2).
While Harvard didn’t challenge as much as their 27 shots might indicate, Witt made all the stops, including several flashy pad saves to preserve his shutout.
“When we did have chances, Witt was strong,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said.
Northeastern is comfortable with Witt? More like overjoyed.
For sure, the Huskies have the goaltending to win next Monday.
“You need special teams, which will determine an awful lot,” Madigan said.
The Huskies’ special teams haven’t dominated statistically the way Witt has this season. They’ve been more middle of the pack, but improving.
Against Harvard, though, they were impeccable.
The power play converted on three of 10 opportunities, getting goals from Kevin Roy, one of the most talented forwards in the country, defenseman Colton Saucerman, and freshman Mike Szmatula. While even strength, Braden Pimm scored his 16th goal.
“Their offensive ability, especially on the power play, is dangerous — guys like Roy, Szmatula and Pimm,” Donato said.
At the other end, the Northeastern penalty killers stopped all seven Harvard power plays, limiting the Crimson to only two total man-advantage shots.
Most notably, the Huskies killed a first-period, five-minute major in a manner so thorough that it had to take much of the wind out of Harvard’s sails. The Crimson managed only a single shot during the five minutes and spent much of the time outside of the offensive zone.
Making the feat even more impressive, the major penalty was assessed to Northeastern captain Josh Manson, a top defenseman and the team’s emotional leader.
The same depth, however, that saw six different Huskies players score goals also saw the rest of the defensive corps rise to the challenge.
“And you need disciplined hockey, which I don’t think we were very good at today,” Madigan said. “Those three characteristics need to come together to win a Beanpot championship.”
Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Or maybe it is.
The game featured 76 minutes in penalties. Arguably, once Northeastern built its lead, Harvard’s only chance was a healthy dollop of power plays, which the Huskies served up with generosity.
Neither was this game an outlier. Northeastern leads Hockey East in penalty minutes with 15.7 per game, more than double New Hampshire’s league-low average.
It’s cause for concern, as is the championship game opponent, Boston College. Ranked second in the country. Undefeated since November. With a win over Boston University in the other semifinal game, the Eagles moved to 12-0-1 in that stretch.
While the Huskies boast the top-scoring freshman class in the country, Boston College boasts the top-scoring team in the country. Plus a few other advantages, including the experience of having won the past four Beanpots.
So, yes, the Huskies will be an underdog.
Which means an extra factor might be needed.
“Sometimes you need a little luck,” Madigan said. “I remember being in this tournament and we won but a little lady luck helped. Thank god there wasn’t replay back then because [a shot by our opponent] went in underneath the bar, but they [ruled] that it went off the crossbar, and we won it.”
Northeastern won its four Beanpots all in the 1980s, one of them with an assist from Lady Luck. Perhaps the 25-year anniversary of its last title will be the occasion for her return.
Or perhaps the Huskies will stun all the experts and with goaltending, special teams, and maybe, just maybe, a little discipline, they won’t need Lady Luck at all.