Northeastern, Boston University on different tracks heading into Beanpot

Northeastern doesn’t consider itself to be a Cinderella team despite outperforming the predictions by a wide margin (photo: Melissa Wade).

The Beanpot starts Monday night and although it annoys fans of teams that aren’t involved, it’s a mighty big deal. So let’s start out with looks at two Beanpot schools going in different directions.

Northeastern: The Huskies and Cinderella

If you care about wins, Northeastern remains the best story in Hockey East. Picked to finish last by the league coaches and many others (including yours truly and Jim Connelly), the Huskies remain in second place and are ranked 10th in the country.

If you care about shots on goal, however, the last two weeks have provided cause for concern. Two weeks ago, the Huskies defeated Vermont 3-2 while getting outshot 48-19. Last weekend, they topped Notre Dame in its own barn 4-0 despite again falling on the lopsided low end of the shot totals, 30-14.

Is this just a case of goaltender Clay Witt (2.04 GAA, .943 save percentage) carrying the team on his shoulders?

“The media gets hung up on the number of shots,” Huskies coach Jim Madigan says. “I’m more interested in the quality shots. We outshot Notre Dame on Saturday night 36-33 [when we lost], but I thought our quality of shots were better on Friday night when we only had 14.

“For me, it’s the Grade A, the quality chances. Ideally, what we’d like to do is get a lot of the pucks to the net and get quality shots, but I’ll take quality opportunities versus quantity any time.

“Certainly, Clay has played well and some teams will get more pucks to the net than others just because that’s their offensive philosophy. Our offense is based more on puck possession so oftentimes we’re not going to get a lot of pucks to the net. As long as we get quality opportunities, that’s what counts.”

To be honest, I’ve considered Northeastern to be a Cinderella team this year, one for which I’ve constantly been expecting to hear the bells toll midnight. But the Huskies are 5-2 since the start of the year and show no signs of slowing down.

“I don’t think the Cinderella analogy fits,” Madigan says. “They’re certainly not looking at it that way. They believe in themselves and believe that we’re a talented group.

“Certainly, there’s been better goaltending this year and better team defense that’s allowed us to be in games and win games, but we have a bunch of quality young men who have a lot of character, believe in themselves and believe in their teammates. From the get-go, we haven’t really paid much attention to what [everyone else] thought of our team or where they’ve ranked our team.

“It’s a cliché and it’s an old one, but our guys just stay in the moment, they stay in the now. They’re taking it one game at a time. That’s what’s great about this team. We’re OK hanging out in the weeds. We don’t want to bring much attention to ourselves. We’re just a blue-collar team that works their rear ends off and wants to get better each weekend.”

While Witt has been a stud between the pipes and Kevin Roy and Braden Pimm mainstays up front, it’s been the freshmen class that has provided a level of scoring that belies its inexperience.

“We have seven or eight freshmen in the lineup every game,” Madigan says. “We’ve expected them to contribute. They had contributed at all levels of hockey before getting here.

“Mike Szmatula was the fourth-leading scorer in the USHL last year and was the MVP of the league. That’s a pretty good indication that he’s going to put points up in college. Johnny Stevens was a good two-way player and had a fair amount of points. Dalen Hedges was a top-five point producer in the Ottawa league. They’ve all had points, but they’ve played to their strengths.

“I knew that they’d be put in a position to succeed, and I knew that our upperclassmen would also help them make that transition offensively. If you’re a point producer, you’re going to get your points.”

While the Huskies rank as the third-best offense in Hockey East, their power-play results have been far more pedestrian than that. Although they’ve converted 18 percent overall (eighth-best in the league), they’ve scored at only an 11.3 percent clip within the league. Conversely, their overall penalty kill percentage of 81.6 jumps to 85.7 (third-best) in Hockey East.

“On the power play, we do have skill there and I think we can score more and I’m confident that we will,” Madigan says. “But it’s also timely goals, just like it’s the timeliness of the saves that Clay makes. A couple of games ago, we went 1-for-6 on the power play, but it was a game-winning goal.

“We want to get better in all areas and there’s room for improvement in the power play, but it’s not like I’m unhappy with it. But it can be better and it can be the difference between winning some games [and not].”

For some time now, Madigan has deflected any questions about the Beanpot, choosing to comment only on the upcoming game. Well, now the Huskies’ Monday night matchup with Harvard is the next game. And he’s ready to talk.

“It’s the next game up on our schedule,” Madigan says. “We can’t look beyond Harvard because they’re our next team. It happens to be the Beanpot on a big stage. What our guys have been able to do is bring a good mentality to every game and not get too high or too low. That’s the way we’re going to have to approach it on Monday.

“We’re not playing for the teams that haven’t had a chance to win it for the last 25 years. We’re just playing for this year’s team. If we take that approach and stay to our game plan, then I’m confident.

“The more we can minimize the significance of the tournament, the better it will be for our guys. It’s not just another game, I understand that. But when the puck drops, you have to execute, you have to play hard, you’ve got to stick to your game plan and then just focus on what you do. It becomes just another game.

“Leading up to it, it’s not just another game. Once the game starts, it is just another game.”

Playing at Frozen (aka Flooded) Fenway several weeks ago should help.

“I don’t look at [the Beanpot] as a distraction, but there’s just a lot of noise around the game,” Madigan says. “You’re at a different venue, a professional venue. We’ll be at the Garden and different locker room setups, and there’s more of a frenzied fever about it, wanting to get tickets and all the excitement on campus.

“So [Fenway] will certainly help us out. But last year [in the Beanpot], we were in the finals. So that will help us out, too. We’ve got enough returning guys on the club who can help our younger guys.”

As for the stretch drive, the Huskies are amazingly well set up to maintain their hold on second place. Of course, all Hockey East teams are tough and young teams are prone to pratfalls based on trap games. All that said, though, Northeastern has completed the toughest part of its league schedule.

The Huskies’ remaining league games consist of two-game sets against Massachusetts (ninth place, 3-8-2), Maine (0-8-2 on the road, where both games will be played), and Boston University (10th place, 3-8-1).

“Because of the playoff format, everybody’s got a chance,” Madigan says. “First round is one game, sudden death, and then you’re to the quarterfinals. So every team wants to be playing well, improving as they get to the end of the season.

“This is the most difficult league in the country. We’ve got seven teams in the top 20. It doesn’t matter if you’re situated in 11th place or you’re in first place, you’ve got to come to play every night.

“We were there last year, more on the bottom, and realized that we played hard and beat some quality teams. So it can happen both ways. Our focus is just going to be game to game. There’s no bad team in Hockey East.”

Boston University has already lost twice to Boston College this season. The teams play in Monday’s Beanpot semifinals (photo: Melissa Wade).

Boston University: Wait ’til next year?

If Northeastern has been the best positive surprise in the league this year, Boston University has got to be the biggest disappointment. Not only are the Terriers mired in 10th place with a 3-8-1 league record, they’re 1-8-1 since the start of December and arguably their best player, defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, is out for the season.

“Obviously, our record isn’t anywhere near we where want it to be,” first-year BU coach David Quinn says. “Nobody’s really happy with where we’re at. [But] I give the guys credit for having good morale. They seem excited to come to the rink every day.

“I say this a lot, and it’s a fact: When you’re playing nine freshmen every single night, it’s difficult, and our injury situation hasn’t helped. It’s a work in progress.”

Of course, the obvious potshot that some will take is that if only Jack Parker were still behind the bench, the situation wouldn’t be so dire. It’s never comfortable replacing a legend.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” Quinn says. “But they’re not here every day and know the situation we’re in. You certainly can’t get upset when people say those things. I don’t pay much attention to it. You do the best job that you can.

“I’m comfortable with where we’re at, meaning that you certainly don’t like the record that you have, but every day we come here as a staff and we try to make the situation better.”

Special teams haven’t helped. The penalty kill is ranked seventh, which isn’t too shabby, and the power play is ranked third at 20.8 percent. But that same power play has allowed an eye-popping eight short-handed goals against, far outdistancing any other team in the league. The result is that the Terriers rank last in the league in special teams net.

“It’s kind of a microcosm of where we’re at,” Quinn says. “When we’re good, we’re pretty good. The hard part for us is when we struggle, we really struggle. That’s what we need to learn as a group.

“You don’t have 34 great games every year. I guess we need to do a better job of managing when things aren’t going great for us. That’s our problem, not only from a special teams standpoint, but from a game-by-game standpoint. When we struggle, we really struggle.”

That holds true in the defensive end as well, where BU also ranks dead last in Hockey East. The Terriers have allowed 3.42 goals against per game. Other than Massachusetts, which is at 3.15 goals against, no other league team has surrendered an average of more than 2.65.

“We’ve given up 14 goals in two games to UMass,” Quinn says, not taking a potshot at the Minutemen, one of the league’s weakest offenses, but just pointing out a fact. “We’ve got three freshmen defensemen playing every night, and I think we’ve given up a lot of empty-netters, too.”

By all accounts, the Terriers have a stellar recruiting class coming in next year. So is it time to consider this season a lost one and look to the next?

“People may think that, but it’s certainly not happening here, that’s for sure,” Quinn says. “It’s never fun when you’re losing, without question, but that’s certainly not the feeling here within the coaching room or even the locker room. We come to the rink every day and we try to get better.”

Of course, the Beanpot also remains as one way to salvage an otherwise disappointing season, a feat the Terriers have pulled off more than once. Unfortunately, they have to take on second-ranked Boston College in the first round, a tall order indeed, even if they played reasonably well against the Eagles two weekends ago before losing 6-4.

“I thought it was a competitive game, and I thought we did a lot of things that we need to do if we’re going to have success against a team like BC,” Quinn says. “The history of the Beanpot is that an underdog seems to have success more often than not. But we’re not going to think of it that way.

“We’re going to try to do the things that we did that allowed us to have some success against BC, and do them a little bit better and do them a little bit more often on Monday night.”

Injuries making a difference

At this time of the year, there’ll always be injuries, but the stature of several sidelined stars is making an impact in the standings.

As noted above, BU’s loss of Grzelcyk for the season is a crushing blow to a staggering team. New Hampshire lost Trevor van Riemsdyk for at least six weeks. Those two could have easily been this year’s first-team All-Hockey East defensemen.

UNH also will be missing top forward Grayson Downing for several more weeks.

Massachusetts-Lowell lost four significant players last Friday night: Scott Wilson, Ryan McGrath, Jake Suter and Zack Kamrass.

UML coach Norm Bazin can be Belichickian at times regarding injuries, so it’s hard to say when the four will return, but they all missed Saturday night’s contest.

All these injuries (and some others I haven’t listed, no doubt) could have significant impacts on the race to the postseason.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

This should be my last column for a while. As I’ve noted before, I’m going into Mass General for open-heart surgery on Feb. 6 (edit: since moved to Feb. 11) and will be there for five to seven days. I’ll be recuperating for a while after that. If you’re so inclined, you can follow my progress on this CaringBridge site.

Thanks for all the well wishes I’ve received. It’s been very gratifying.

You’ll be in Jimmy’s exceptional hands until I return.

But before I leave, let me remind you about my two hockey novels. “Cracking the Ice” has been out in hardcover for two years now, but Pentucket Publishing has just released the first e-book edition. It’s available on Kindle with other formats coming online in the next few days. $6.99

I’ve also told you in past weeks about “Body Check,” my hockey romance novel. It’s available on KindleNOOK, Kobo, Smashwords, and other formats. $5.99

As always, you can follow my fiction writing news and sign up for my newsletter on my website.