Two Mondays ago at the annual Beanpot luncheon, where all of the four schools' coaches and seniors gather, Jason Guerriero delivered a light-hearted message to his Boston College and Boston University opponents. "To the BC and BU guys, the guys who call me Pedro and Vladimir, I'm Jason," said the Northeastern forward. "And I'm Italian, not Spanish."
In the crowd, Northeastern goalie Keni Gibson laughed along with his teammates, but there was some truth to Guerriero's joke. He is Northeastern's captain, but Guerriero's name still eludes the tongues of Hockey East coaches and players who are more familiar with Dominican baseball players than the undrafted senior from Manorville, N.Y.
"He's a kid that I don't think has gotten enough credit over the years that he should have," Gibson said. "He's proving a lot of critics wrong this year."
Gibson was talking about his captain, who is Hockey East's fourth-leading scorer with 13 goals and 23 assists, but he could have easily been referring to himself. The senior from Stittsville, Ontario, enters tonight's Beanpot championship against BU with a 12-12-4 record, 2.36 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage, and a league-leading 785 saves. Like Guerriero, the senior goaltender hasn't been drafted.
"I've seen all the goalies in the league now and I'd rate Keni in the top three of the league for sure," said Northeastern assistant and former Husky goalie Bruce Racine.
Tonight, the Terriers can point to their legacy as they aim for their 26th Beanpot title. They are led by a coach who boasts a 48-15 record in the tournament. However, what BU won't have on its side tonight are arguably the game's two most talented players ("He's probably the best goalie in the league," BU coach Jack Parker said of Gibson) and perhaps two of the Beanpot's most unheralded competitors. Guerriero and Gibson have been overlooked for the past three years by professional scouts and Hockey East insiders -- a history they are determined to alter this season.
"It's by far the biggest game of my career right now," Gibson said. "For everybody in the room, it's the biggest of their career. My team is trying to leave its mark in the books. We want to do something really great this year, especially our senior class, and leave some kind of stamp in the league."
Becoming the best
Eleven months have passed since the conclusion of the 2003-04 regular season, but it is an ending that Gibson recalls all too well. The Huskies were clawing for the final Hockey East playoff berth, and on Feb. 28, Gibson stopped 38 shots to lead his club to a 6-3 win over BU, the team just above the Huskies in the standings. In the last weekend of the regular season, Northeastern swept UMass and jumped over BU into the final spot. However, moments after their 3-2 win over the Minutemen March 6, Gibson and his teammates learned that BU had beaten New Hampshire in overtime, snatching eighth place and punting the Huskies from the postseason.
"It was going from one of the best highs I've ever had here to one of the biggest lows," Gibson said. "It was like jumping off a cliff. You got to the top of the mountain and someone pushed you off. It was heartbreak."
The up-and-down swing of that night reflected most of Gibson's career, as Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder compared Gibson's development to the peak-and-valley line of a heart monitor. Gibson, whose father Dennis was the goaltender for one season on Bobby Orr's Oshawa Generals junior team, split time his first two seasons with Mike Gilhooly.
But by December of the 2003-04 season, Gibson's career turned into a steady ascent. Last season, he turned in an 11-13-7 campaign, recording a 2.76 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Crowder saw not just improved numbers but a goalie who was heeding the netminding mantra of out, up, and aggressive, confidently challenging shooters at the top of his crease. For Gibson, a 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pounder who stands several inches short of a goalie's optimal height, positioning is especially important.
This year, Gibson has started 28 of Northeastern's 30 games, totaling 1,706 minutes -- tops in Hockey East. Against Harvard last week, after allowing a first-minute breakaway goal to Kevin Du, Gibson kicked out 39 shots, including several point-blank saves on Crimson defenseman Noah Welch in the first overtime.
"Keni is one of the better goaltenders in the country," Guerriero said. "When Keni plays good, we all play good. In the Stanley Cup finals, you hear all the time that a goalie's hot and right now Keni is. He can take us a long way."
These past two seasons, Crowder made clear to Gibson that he was the No. 1 goalie and that it was unacceptable for him to turn in subpar efforts. It was an expectation that hindered Gibson at times, but Crowder believes that the senior has learned to motivate himself toward excellence.
"It's an inner push rather than needing to be pushed by competition or by the fear of not playing," Crowder said. "When you look at some of the finer athletes, they find ways to push themselves even if they know they're going to play no matter what. Keni had to find that."
Gibson credits his maturation to hard work and confidence, which allows him to step into shooters and stay square to incoming pucks. He also praises his goalies coaches (Ed Kessel for his first three years, and currently Racine), who have suggested minor adjustments, but saw no need to overhaul his game.
"I can't take any credit for what Keni has done," said Racine, the two-time Beanpot MVP. "Have I helped him? Maybe, but in five months, maybe it was a little tweak here or there. Really, he's done it all on his own."
Last Friday was an off day for the Huskies, but Guerriero was still on the ice for an informal practice, making his coach look good. Guerriero and Crowder, who was wearing a gray sweatshirt and red hat, were taking part in a two-on-none drill where one forward skated behind the net and fed the other a pass for a shot on goal. Guerriero curled behind the net and slipped a perfect pass to Crowder, who neatly one-timed a roofer into the cage.
Lately, Crowder has looked good just by putting Guerriero on the ice. Last Monday against Harvard, Guerriero won an offensive-zone draw that led to the Huskies' first goal. Guerriero, who kicked off the season with a point effort in Northeastern's 4-2 win over Michigan, has a four-game point streak and trails New Hampshire's Sean Collins by two for the league lead in assists.
So far this year, Guerriero and linemates Mike Morris and Jared Mudryk have combined for 76 points, becoming one of the deadliest lines in Hockey East.
"He's got everything you want in a center iceman," said Parker. "He can win faceoffs, beat you one-on-one, and can run away from people and find someone who's wide open. He's got the whole package."
Not many coaches thought that way four years ago, even after Guerriero led the North American Hockey League in scoring with 28 goals and 83 points. Coaches and pro scouts saw the same thing -- a 5-8 forward whose stature might make him a liability.
"People say he's small, but that's heightwise -- that's all it is," Gibson said. "If you take his heart, he's the biggest kid in the league."
His lack of height is a criticism Guerriero, whose long hair and scruffy beard make him a Johnny Damon look-alike, has heard throughout his career. He acknowledges he doesn't have the longest reach and that his head, as Gibson described it, is positioned at the perfect height for opposing elbows.
What Guerriero has, however, is a sense that Crowder calls "seeing the other plane." Technically, Guerriero explains it as being able to see the ice in sections, registering the direction of a pass before it is made, and taking correct angles to arrive at a puck's destination an instant before an opponent.
To Crowder, it is an ability, honed by hours of improvisational, freewheeling pickup hockey, that allows Guerriero to slice through openings and find open ice. It is instinctive hockey sense, a gift that Crowder wishes he could evoke from other players, but one that escapes all save for exceptions like Guerriero, who now has 135 career points and is Northeastern's 21st-leading all-time scorer.
"The ultimate was Wayne Gretzky," Crowder said. "He knew what would happen before it happened. Jay's obviously not at that level, but his awareness enables him to find guys, make plays, know when to hold on, and know when to give it up."
For all Guerriero's weapons -- a whistling wrister, scrappiness in the corners, expansive peripheral vision -- perhaps the aspect that makes him especially deadly is his penchant for slowing the game down. While Parker says he's fast enough to beat a defender one-on-one, Guerriero will often hold onto the puck longer than normal, waiting for a teammate to shake his man.
"I feel that it's God-given talent," Guerriero said of the ability. "A lot of guys have it, some guys don't, and their game is grind-it-out."
By doing so, Guerriero and his linemates can create more odd-man situations. Or, if a defender steps up to challenge Guerriero, he can change gears and blow past his opponent.
"Part of that is the respect that other teams give him," Crowder said. "If they don't go at him under control, he can make them look silly."
While Guerriero's rights don't belong to any pro team, he believes that a good showing tonight will merit attention from scouts. The Huskies have suffered two straight seasons in which they failed to advance to the playoffs, but a spotlight game such as a Beanpot championship is sure to attract the scouts who have ignored the non-playoff clubs of the past two years.
"I'd have no problem paying $40 to see him play," Gibson said. "Everybody knocks him for his height, but all he needs is a shot. If they give him a shot, that's all he needs to get to the next level."