February 3, 2014

Freshmen carry Northeastern into Beanpot final

By Andrew Merritt

Center Mike Szmatula paced the Huskies' offense with three points (1g, 2a) against the Crimson on Monday night. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON – In 27 games, the nine Northeastern freshman skaters have combined for 106 points, more than any other group of rookies in the country.

That includes the opening game of the 2014 Beanpot, in which the freshmen laid claim to eight points, including two goals in the Huskies' 6-0 romp past Harvard, which sends Northeastern to its third Beanpot final in four years.

Leading the way was standout Mike Szmatula, who had a goal and a pair of assists. Those two helpers ran his total to 20, the most by any freshman in the country this year. Classmate Dalen Hedges provided the first goal of the game – and the only one goaltender Clay Witt needed in a 27-save shutout.

Before the pounding was over, John Stevens had two more assists, Hedges had one, and Matt Benning helped on Szmatula's game-ender in the third.

Szmatula has been the cream of the crop among Northeastern's rookies, but he's hardly a one-man show. Five of the Husky rookies – Szmatula, Hedges, Stevens, Benning and Zach Aston-Reese – have double-digit points, and all five plus Tanner Pond have played in nearly every one of Northeastern's games this season.

"It's not just me, all of the guys in our class have had an easy transition, the guys have coached us on the system and how it works, and made everyone comfortable," Szmatula said.

They aren't buried at the bottom of the line chart, either. All four of Northeastern's lines feature a freshman at center, with Stevens pivoting the lethal top line between Kevin Roy (15-18–33) and Braden Pimm (16-11–27).

On defense, Benning logs big minutes alongside Dax Lauwers, and plays a big role on one of the Huskies' power play units.

"That's a confident team," said Harvard coach Ted Donato, whose team failed to reach the Beanpot final for the sixth straight year. "They have a good mix. ... Benning is an excellent quarterback on the power play."

The confidence Northeastern's freshmen carry – and the confidence the coaching staff has in playing so many of them so often – comes in part from the fact that none of them are exactly "young." All six of the freshmen who played in Monday night's victory are at least 19 years old, and Szmatula turns 22 in August.

"I think it helped a lot, being an older guy, you know what to expect," Szmatula said. "There isn't much of an age difference (on the ice)."

So they may be fresh, but they're hardly green.

"We're happy with all our freshmen, and they've integrated with the upperclassmen, which is nice to see," said NU coach Jim Madigan, a Beanpot champion as a player and assistant who has taken the Huskies to back-to-back finals.

"They've got a lot of hockey experienceThey're still 19, maybe 20, but they've got hockey experience," he said"Benning, Stevens and Szmatula played in Dubuque last year, and they won a (USHL) championship."

Those three have been the biggest contributors, and for Benning and Stevens it's no big surprise, given their lineage. Benning's father, Brian, played 568 games in the NHL with five different franchises, and his uncle, Jim, is a Bruins' assistant GM. Stevens' father, John, coached the Philadelphia Flyers for parts of three seasons and is now an assistant with Los Angeles.

"Stevens has a pretty good pedigree, he's had a pretty good pedigree in his dad, and Benning has had a pretty good coach in his dad who played (500) games in the NHL," Madigan said.

It's been 26 years since Northeastern won the Beanpot, so the hype around the team will only increase in the next week leading up to the Feb. 10 final. While he's not a local, the meaning of the beloved Boston tournament isn't lost on Szmatula, who said he watched every year growing up.

""It's really something special to be a part of," he said. "Tonight we wanted to give ourselves an opportunity to play in the final, and we did that. Now we just have to take it one game at a time."

It's likely that if Northeastern can end 26 long years of waiting for another Beanpot title next Monday, at least a few of those older, wiser freshmen will have a hand in that history-making effort.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com