If Northeastern hopes to win the Beanpot for the first time since 1988, they'll have to defeat a team that's now ranked No. 1 in the nation, hasn't lost a game in over two months and comes in as the four-time reigning champions of the tournament.
The Huskies and Eagles are set to square off at 7:30 on Monday evening at TD Garden, where they'll meet for the third time in the last four years. Half of Boston College's four recent titles came via wins over Northeastern, including a 6-3 victory last February.
NU coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) was focused on the fact that this is a new year with plenty of new faces playing big roles for his group.
"This is a different team from last year," the Huskies' bench boss told the Boston Globe. "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 upperclassmen."
Those freshmen Madigan referred to were instrumental in the team's 6-0 win over Harvard in the semifinals last week. The nine first-year Huskies in the lineup combined for two goals and eight points, three of which came from center Mike Szmatula.
The Northeastern defense made things pretty easy on goaltender Clay Witt, as the senior standout stopped all 27 shots he faced for his second shutout in his last three starts. Witt (14-7-2) comes into Monday's contest against BC with a .946 save percentage, which is tops among all Division 1 goaltenders in the nation.
"In a short tournament, you need goaltending, and obviously we feel confident in our goalie," said Madigan. "You need special 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."
Witt's only lost back-to-back games on one occasion this season. Both of those losses came to BC, as the Eagles outscored the Huskies 8-5 during a home-and-home series Nov. 1-2.
Boston College suffered its own set of back-to-back losses later that month, falling to Maine and Holy Cross in consecutive weekends. Since then, the Eagles have gone on a 13-0-1 run. On Monday, just hours before they look to capture their fifth straight Beanpot title, they jumped to the No. 1 spot in USA Today's college hockey poll.
Following his team's 3-1 victory over rival BU in their semifinal showdown last Monday, coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) talked about the Eagles' ability to rise to the occasion.
"We tell our players an awful lot that pressure's good for you," York said. "It makes you get up in the morning, makes you work harder. It makes you more alert. So, we welcome pressure. We have a good team, we know that, and now we're expected to play very, very well and win some trophies. That's something we embrace."
One player who showed he could handle pressure, in what was the biggest game of his collegiate career to date, was Thatcher Demko. The freshman phenom allowed just one goal on 28 shots against the Terriers, coming up big in the game's closing minutes to prevent BU from forcing overtime.
"He's big, he's square. He makes a great save at the end of the game just because he's in great position," BU coach David Quinn (Cranston, R.I.) said of Demko. "He understands what his strength is, and it's his size. He doesn't waste any movement, and he doesn't waste any energy."
Few teams have been able to stand up the dynamite depth York's Eagles possess, especially the white-hot line of Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.), Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.) and Johnny Gaudreau. But York knows that this year's edition of the Huskies will pose a greater challenge to BC's reign at the tournament than ever before.
"Jim's done a tremendous job with his club. He's got some really special players," York said. "They're getting some excellent goaltending from Clay Witt. It's no surprise that they've won so many games there. I think Jim feels it's by far the best team they've had there since he's been there."
Is it good enough to end a Beanpot drought that's spanned over a quarter of a century? We'll find out Monday night.