BOSTON – Jim Madigan knows what happens when you win a Beanpot at Northeastern.
“It’s such a special feeling, it carries with you for the rest of your life,” said the Milton, Mass., native, who won two Beanpots as a player in 1984 and 1985, and one more as an assistant coach in 1988. “I look at myself, just an up-and-down plugger, and I’m always introduced as having won the Beanpot. I was fortunate to have great teammates, and to be part of a team that won it as an assistant coach.”
That’s what he wants for his players now. And in Madigan’s third year as his alma mater’s head coach, the Huskies may be as close to ending their 25-year Beanpot drought in a long time.
Northeastern will enter the annual tournament, which will be played Feb. 3 and 10 at TD Garden, with a real chance of breaking the spell that has kept it from a share of the venerable Boston icon for a quarter century. The Huskies will have their best record entering the two-night tournament since 2009, when they beat Boston College on the first Monday in February, but fell to eventual national champion Boston University on the second Monday.
That team, too, looked like it might be special enough to end the program’s drought, which started after a masterful performance from goaltender Bruce Racine and two goals from David O’Brien pushed the Huskies to the 1988 title.
Twenty-five Beanpot finals have been played since then. Northeastern has appeared in seven of them, including last year’s surprise entry that ended with a 6-3 loss to Boston College. The Huskies have played in three of the last five finals, but came up short each time.
So why should this year be any different?
For starters, the scheduling rotation and the state of each Beanpot team gives the Huskies some hope. Harvard, which plays the Huskies in this year’s opener at 5 p.m. on Feb. 3, is on pace for its second straight losing season, barring a miraculous turnaround. And BU enters its nightcap against BC in awfully dire straits as well, with little hope for a winning record in coach David Quinn’s (Cranston, R.I.) first year behind the bench.
Boston College, of course, is the cream of the crop again, and the obvious team to beat. But the Huskies wouldn’t see the Eagles until the final, and crazy things tend to happen when the Beanpot trophy is on the line.
But before we even get that far, it’s Northeastern’s overall quality that makes this year’s team a real contender. It starts, as with many good teams, in goal, where Clay Witt has been a revelation. After spending his first two years as a backup, Witt has taken the role of No. 1 goaltender and run away with it, becoming one of the top keepers in the country. While the Northeastern defense has been a liability for the Huskies, time and time again Witt has been there to clean up the mess.
“I knew he was ready for the load, because when you look back at his numbers in the USHL, he had good numbers, which is a pretty good indicator of where a goalie’s going to be when he transitions to college,” Madigan said. “My first year, his sophomore year, he didn’t get a lot of opportunities, but there were glimpses there. I thought he could carry the ball.
|Clay Witt has seized the No. 1 goalie duties and has put up stellar stats. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)|
“Did I think he was going to have a .940-something save percentage? No. I knew he could carry the ball, but he hadn’t proven it. We still needed him to prove it, and he’s done that in practice and in games.”
Northeastern’s recipe for past Beanpot success included good goaltending, as Racine’s memorable NU career bears out. But this year’s team has more than just a workhorse goalie going for it. The Huskies’ offense is as good as it’s been in a long time, and unlike last year, it’s not just the Kevin Roy show.
Roy has continued to be one of the top scorers in the country as a sophomore, having amassed 30 points by mid-January. But where last season’s team only had three players with 20 or more points by season’s end, this year’s squad has already reached that number, with at least two more players on pace to join Roy, freshman Mike Szmatula and senior Braden Pimm.
Szmatula hasn’t just scored a bunch of points, he’s helped give the Northeastern offense the dimension it never had last season. It might seem like a no-brainer to pair Szmatula, who had more assists than any other freshman in the country heading into Northeastern’s final pre-Beanpot weekend at Notre Dame, with the gifted scoring hands of Roy. But the two players have never been on a line this year, which has given Northeastern more scoring depth, and Roy a little more room to move.
“If (opposing teams) key on me, the difference is last year they could do that and get away with it, but this year we have a supporting cast that will make them pay if they just key on me or Pimm,” Roy said.
Szmatula has played on a scoring line with Zach Aston-Reese and junior Torin Snydeman this year, putting a fellow freshman on one of his wings and a former fourth-liner with fleet feet on the other.
“It gives you a lot of confidence, it’s a good feeling knowing the coaches will put you out there like that,” Szmatula said. “My linemates have helped me a lot, it’s more than just me.”
Szmatula spoke about the easy transition for an incoming freshman on this year’s team, and the biggest reason is something Roy talked about as a key to this year’s success.
“I think last year we had a really talented team, we just didn’t put it all together as a team,” Roy said. “I think the spirit in the locker room is so much better this year, and that’s where the big difference is. I think on the ice, you look at the players we had last year, we had a lot of things that we thought we could really succeed, we just didn’t do it as a group.”
The coach has noticed a greater camaraderie, too. But he’s also seen that this year’s group has a better level of focus on the hockey mantra, “one game at a time.” That’s something Madigan thinks will help his young Huskies deal with the hype of another run at the Beanpot.
“Hey, I get it. I’ve been around this campus for a long time, and they’ve had some success, but with this tournament we haven’t had success in 25-plus years,” he said. “I can understand why they’re starving for this team to win. The good news for our guys is that they have just stayed in the moment and stayed current and present on what the task is at hand. That’s where the leadership has been really good, just staying focused and keeping everyone grounded.”
There are no bold predictions coming from Northeastern – not when it comes to the beloved, beguiling Beanpot that has eluded the program all these years. But there is certainly plenty of optimism, Szmatula said.
“We think we have something special going,” he said. “[Something] that everyone believes in.”