At first glance, tonight's Beanpot championship game might appear to be a David vs. Goliath matchup. After all, on one side is Boston College (21-4-3), ranked second in the country, running away with first place in Hockey East, and shooting for a fifth straight Beanpot title. Over on the other side is Northeastern, which has not won a Beanpot since 1988.But the two programs have had some memorable meetings in recent years on one of the first two Mondays in February. Northeastern is the last team to beat BC in the Beanpot, defeating the Eagles in the 2009 semifinals. It has lost to BC in three straight Beanpots, and this will be the third time the two clubs will be playing for the championship in the last four years. Included in that run is the 2011 final, in which BC prevailed 7-6 in overtime.
The gap looks to be even narrower this season. The Huskies (16-9-3) are ranked 10th in the country and are currently third in Hockey East. Their play this season is all the more impressive when you consider Northeastern didn't even qualify for the Hockey East playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
"This is a different team from last year," Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said. "I really like this team. They come to practice every day working their rear ends off and want to get better. We've got an infusion of young players. It's a group that truly does get along well. As a team, the freshmen contributors push the upper classmen."
The rapid ascent in the standings has some calling the Huskies a Cinderella team, a notion Madigan does not dispute.
"It speaks to our guys who realized that not much was expected from the outside, but a lot was expected from within the locker room, and from our leadership core from last year," said Madigan. "They know it's a nice story, but we've delivered the message that this story hasn't played itself out yet. There's a long way to go and let's just keep focused. The reason why we've had a lot of wins to date is they've stayed focused each and every game."
Madigan points to senior captain Josh Manson as the reason the team has become so close.
"We've got a real good locker room, because of him and our leadership core," said Madigan. "He's the captain, the one that keeps everything under control. It's nice when your captain can have a commanding force."
Manson would like nothing better than to bring a Beanpot back to campus in his senior year.
"I didn't know much about the Beanpot coming from Canada," said Manson. "When you get here, you really learn about it quickly, how special it is. It's a great tournament. We're happy with the season so far, but we're not satisfied. We know the toughest part of the season is coming up."
It was Northeastern's response to a Manson penalty in the 6-0 opening round win over Harvard that showed what the team was about. The Huskies were leading, 2-0, when Manson was whistled for a five-minute major and a game misconduct. Northeastern was able to kill off the Harvard power play and rolled to the win.
"That's a huge loss for us," said Northeastern goaltender Clay Witt after the game. "He's an outstanding player and he's been the heart of our team. We knew that everyone had to pitch in a little bit. We had some guys step up big."
BC is accustomed to having players step up. The Eagles refer to this part of the schedule as trophy season, as they routinely contend for the Beanpot, the Hockey East tournament title, and the national title.
"We tell our players pressure is good for you," said BC coach Jerry York. "It makes you get up in the morning and work harder. It makes you more alert, so, we welcome pressure. We have a good team, and I expect it to play very well and win some trophies. That's something we embrace. I think it's good for you."
Junior Johnny Gaudreau has never shied away from the spotlight, and leads the nation in points with 24 goals and 32 assists. He could bring another trophy back to Chestnut Hill this season, as he is a leading contender for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top college hockey player in the nation.
"It's fun to watch Johnny G, isn't it?" said York after BC's 3-1 win over BU in the first round last week. "If you like hockey, to see what he does with the puck and the plays he makes, even from the bench, sometimes I'm shocked at what he does with the puck, and he was certainly a catalyst for us (against BU)."
Freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko certainly embraced the pressure in his first Beanpot start. Demko recorded 27 saves in a game that was not decided until Gaudreau's empty-netter with 31 seconds left.
"It means an awful lot to his self-confidence." said York. "He's been a good goaltender for a lot of years before he got here, so I don't think it's a surprise that he could handle something like this and play well. Thatcher, as I watch him, he’s getting more confident. He handles the puck now. He reminds me a lot of Cory Schneider at the same age."
That's quite a comparison, as Schneider has gone on to have a solid NHL career after leaving BC in 2007, but Demko isn't the only goalie who has been outstanding thus far. Witt recorded his fourth shutout of the year for the Huskies against Harvard, and was named the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week four times this season.
"I think Jim's done a terrific job with his club," said York. "He's got a some really special players. They're getting excellent goaltending from Clay Witt. It's no surprise that they've won so many games this year. They've got a really good club. I think Jim probably feels this is the best team they've had since he's been there."
While both teams feel confident in their netminders, goaltending is just part of the equation for BC and NU as they get set for tonight's game. It's a combination that Madigan mentioned after the win over Harvard.
"In a short tournament, you need goaltending, and obviously we feel confident in our goalie," said Madigan. "You need specials teams, which will determine a lot, and you need discipline. Those three criteria need to come together to win a Beanpot. And sometimes a little bit of luck, too."
The Huskies will need all three, and probably some luck, if they are to end their 26-year drought and stop BC from a fifth straight title.
- Michael Vega
- Mark Blaudschun
- Nancy Marrapese-Burrell