Last To First And Lovin’ It

Think about the great turnarounds in sports. The last-to-first 1967 Boston Red Sox. The rags-to-riches New York Islanders of the seventies. The bozos-to-boffo Dallas Cowboys earlier this decade.

This year’s Northeastern Huskies are threatening to join the pantheon of those great all-time transformations from 97-pound weaklings to muscle-bound tough guys.

"They’ve raised the level of the bar on what’s expected. Now it’s up to them to maintain that. It’s part of maturing to not accept anything less."

— Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder

Last year, they finished in last place with a 3-19-2 record in Hockey East games and 8-25-3 overall. This year, observers expected more of the same. League coaches picked them to finish in the cellar again.

So who’s in first place now with an overall record of 10-5-2? Who’s ranked tenth nationally? Who was the only Hockey East team to emerge from the holiday tournaments with a championship?

The Northeastern Huskies.

Go figure.

One look at the Huskies’ lineup makes their transformation even more remarkable. Typically, only three players who aren’t freshmen or sophomores dress for any given game. While those three exceptions — senior forwards Scott Campbell and Justin Kearns and junior defenseman David Dupont — have made major contributions, none has had a Hobey Baker type of season where he’s told the kids to hop on his back and he’d carry them to the top.

No matter how you slice it, Northeastern’s dramatic turnaround has come on the shoulders of first- and second-year players.

On the blue line, freshmen Mike Jozefowicz, John Peterman, Arik Engbrecht, and either Doug Carlson or Matt Brown have joined Dupont (a transfer from Michigan Tech) and sophomore Aaron Toews to form a defensive corps that has dropped from last year’s 4.42 goals a game to 3.18.

When Hockey East recently honored one defenseman from each team, it recognized a freshman, Jozefowicz, for the Huskies. A week ago, both Jozefowicz and Toews earned berths on the Mariucci Classic All-Tournament team.

Whatever happened to the difficulties of young defensemen adjusting to Division I action?

Up front, not one player ranks among the Hockey East scoring leaders, but collectively they’re still scoring enough to win. And, again, it’s primarily the younger players. Todd Barclay and Roger Holeczy — both sophomores — and freshman Sean MacDonald lead the team with 14 points in 17 games. After Campbell’s 12 points comes a host of additional underclassmen: freshman Brian Cummings (12 points) and Graig Mischler (10 points), and sophomores Bobby Davis and Billy Newson (both nine points).

But as much as Northeastern’s success has been a true team effort with everyone carrying the load, sophomore goaltender Marc Robitaille has been the team’s backbone in its ascent from the cellar.

On consecutive weekends early in November, he stole wins against Merrimack and Boston College. In the Merrimack game, he stopped 15 shots in the first period, 15 in the second, and 14 in the third, leading the Huskies to a 6-4 win while they were being outshot 48-27.

Against BC, his heroics stood out even more. In three periods of regulation, the Eagles outshot Northeastern 14-3, 13-3 and 9-7, but Robitaille’s 32 saves to his counterpart’s nine put the Huskies into overtime. They won it on their first shot.

“It was definitely him against the other team for parts of those games,” says Crowder. “It’s very rare that a team is having success and the goalie isn’t a big part of it.”

More recently, Robitaille’s 40 saves in the championship game against host Minnesota and its 9,000-plus fans keyed Northeastern’s win in the Mariucci Classic.

Robitaille’s tournament MVP performance capped a stellar December that prompted Hockey East to award him its Goaltender of the Month Award. For December, he posted a 4-0-1 record, a 1.97 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. At the same time, he extended a team and individual eight-game unbeaten streak.

For Robitaille, it represents a payoff on a decision he and his parents made when he was 16, to forgo major junior hockey and retain his NCAA eligibility.

“I flirted with the idea of going major junior, but my parents convinced me otherwise,” says Robitaille, a native of Gloucester, Ont. “An education is too important these days.

“My goal was to get a scholarship and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I went back to juniors for four years and worked my buns off to get to this point. This is what I wanted and I was determined to get it.

“I think it was a wise decision that my parents and I made. I don’t regret it at all. I’m having the time of my life. I’m loving it.”

His choice of Northeastern came down to location, and the opportunity to play right away since the Huskies were graduating both halves of their goaltender rotation.

He got a surprise, however, when then-Northeastern coach Ben Smith resigned to coach the U.S. Women’s National team and the school wooed Crowder from UMass-Lowell. Crowder is a former winner of the Spencer T. Penrose Award as the nation’s top Division I coach, but most athletes feel some initial unease playing for a coach who didn’t recruit them.

“I was a little worried at first,” says Robitaille. “I didn’t hear until about two weeks before coming down, so I didn’t have much time to think about it. But I got ready just as if the old coach was going to be here. It was my chance to shine. It was my chance to come in and prove myself and win a job.”

Faced with competition from fellow recruit Judd Brackett and junior Kevin Noke, Robitaille responded.

“It was pretty much neck-and-neck until the games started,” he says. “What won it for me was I was a little bit more consistent, I was a little bit older and I was bigger and stronger. In this league, it’s a tough game. It’s a tough league to play in. Even the goalies get pushed around. I think that’s what won it for me at the start, but my consistent play throughout the first few games solidified my position.

“I was pretty much on the bubble every game, game in and game out. I’d come out as if it was my last game. That’s pretty much what kept me going. I never really thought that the job was completely mine. I was just happy to get the call.”

And get the call he did. Robitaille played in 34 of Northeastern’s 36 games, thriving on the heavy workload.

“Who doesn’t?” he says. “I’ve always wanted to play. In juniors, I played 60 or 70 games in a season. But you come here and practice a bit, but only play 30 or 35 games.”

Crowder’s use of Robitaille as his trump card in game after game reminded some of his reliance on Dwayne Roloson in Crowder’s years at UMass-Lowell. In his junior and senior years, Roloson started 78 of 79 games for the River Hawks and in his senior season earned Hockey East Player of the Year, first-team All-America and Hobey Baker finalist honors.

“Roloson was a kid that wanted to play every night and Robitaille is the same way,” says Crowder. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a goalie that worked harder, even in practices, than Roloson did. Robitaille is getting that now.

“He was a kid that I don’t think practiced very hard at this time last year. There would be drills last year in practice that we felt he would just take off or we might as well put the shooter tutor in there. I think that was a little bit of the junior mentality coming in, where practices are just taking up an hour of ice time, whereas in college they’re pretty important because you don’t have as many games.

“But now, every drill that we do, and in every situation, he’s competing. He’s not taking it for granted. Roloson was always a guy I had to kick off the ice at the end of practice. Robitaille is showing those signs also. He needed to do that to bring his game up a level.”

Robitaille agrees with Crowder’s assessment of his work ethic, both then and now.

“I took a season to adapt, and I think I’m a lot wiser this year,” he says. “It was really hard to concentrate last year. We came to the rink and didn’t want to play. We were expecting a loss. People didn’t want to come to the rink or to the practices.

“My slacking off in practices was a pure reflection of what the older kids were doing too. The whole team was doing the same thing. That’s how the team went last year.

“This year it’s a 360-degree turnaround. This team wants to come out and play. We’re very young. We know that, but we’re not using it as an excuse. We’ve set our goals this year very high.

“As a sophomore group, we got together and we swore to ourselves that a season like last year would never happen to us again. We’ve picked our game up, we’re helping the freshmen, and there’s more of a team atmosphere this year. It’s exciting to be around this place.”

Of course, Crowder had a major hand in changing the atmosphere, too. With almost no returning experience on the blue line, he still cut one defenseman who had played 31 games last year, but hadn’t made the required step up in the offseason.

He temporarily banished the number-four returning scorer, saying at the time that the player “is looking to get himself in shape before he’s allowed to come back. He’s no different than anyone else.”

Strength and conditioning had been a major problem with last year’s team and Crowder wasn’t going to tolerate a second time.

“I had three kids among my better players last year show up and do the two-mile run in 17 1/2 minutes, one in 16 3/4 and one in 16 1/2,” says Crowder. “In a two-mile run! And they’re supposed to be Division I athletes! By the time you get them in shape, the season’s half over.”

“This year, we put a lot of accountability into the kids coming back. They had to send us every month what they were doing. We’ve seen some great improvements in kids. You can see some kids have an extra quicker step.”

No one is questioning the Crowder’s judgment now.

Last year’s team didn’t win a single game that it didn’t already lead at the start of the third period. Last year’s team, one which hadn’t worked hard enough on its strength training in the offseason, routinely lost the battles in the corners.

Not so this year.

In their first game, the Huskies accomplished what they had not been able to achieve once the previous year. They came back and won a game in the third period. The trend continued — in three of their first four victories, and four of their first six, they took the ‘W’ by virtue of winning the third period.

And their improved strength showed when, in stretches, they were able to outmuscle teams down low and control the puck and generate offense by cycling the puck in the corners.

This success as a team has paid dividends individually as well. Several players have gained recognition with league Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week honors and all-tournament team selections, as well as Robitaille’s Goalie of the Month award.

Those honors were few and far between for last year’s club. This reality was best illustrated by Hockey East’s selection of New Hampshire’s Sean Matile on its All-Rookie team over Robitaille. Playing 22 of 39 games for a first-place team, Matile compiled a 3.17 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. Playing 34 of 36 games for a last-place team, Robitaille’s corresponding numbers of 4.20 and .884 fell short.

“Sean Matile is a great goalie,” says Robitaille, when asked about the comparison. “He had the stats behind him. I was really inconsistent last year. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get it, but I didn’t feel that I had played to the best of my abilities.

“The best man won, I guess. I’m just out this year to beat him,” he adds with a smile.

“Any player wants the best for themselves,” he continues. “They want the awards. They want it all. I’m the same way. I’d like to be a Hobey Baker finalist, but the reality is that it’s a team sport and for anybody to be successful the team has to be successful.

“Right now, I just want to give everything I have to make this team successful and make this team win so we can all get awards and we can all get seen by pro teams. Pro scouts only come to see winners. They don’t want losers. We’re going in the right direction now.”

In the right direction with a bullet.