Beanpot Championship Preview: Northeastern Looks To Finally Snap Title Slump

northeasternWhen Bruce Racine and the 1987-88 Northeastern Huskies raised the Beanpot trophy at the old Boston Garden, not a single current Huskies player had been born yet.

That victory, on Feb. 8, 1998, capped what is still the greatest stretch of Beanpot success in Northeastern history. In a five-year span from 1984 to 1988, the Huskies won three Beanpot tournaments and lost in overtime in the final of another. Since then, they have won zero.

Now, after easily dispatching Harvard last Monday, Northeastern is back in the championship game for the third time in four years, squaring off against a Boston College team that comes in ranked No. 1 in the nation and hasn’t lost since late November. The Eagles earned their spot in the final with a 3-1 victory over Boston University, which will play Harvard in the consolation game Monday at 4:30 p.m.

Here are a few of the major storylines to look for in BC-Northeastern, which is set to begin at TD Garden at 7:30 p.m.

Recent resumes

As mentioned, Boston College has been all but unbeatable of late. The same cannot be said of Northeastern.

The Huskies did thrash Harvard 6-0 in the Beanpot semis, but they also have lost three of their last five games by a combined score of 10-1. The most recent defeat, a 3-0 shutout loss against an 8-17-4 UMass squad last Friday, dropped Northeastern from second place to third in the Hockey East standings, three points behind UMass Lowell and 10 back of first-place BC.

Somewhat bizarrely, each of Northeastern’s last four games have been shutouts, with the Huskies winning two and losing two.

BC, on the other hand, has dominated, going 13-0-1 since dropping a non-league tilt to Holy Cross back on Nov. 27. In their one game since last week’s semifinal win over BU, the Eagles demolished last-place Merrimack 6-1 thanks to a hat trick from senior Bill Arnold and three assists from junior linemate Johnny Gaudreau.

The Eagles also have been the team to beat in Beanpot play in recent years, winning each of the last four tournaments and defeating Northeastern twice in the last three title games.

Newcomers in net

Last Monday marked the Beanpot debut for both Northeastern’s Clay Witt and BC’s Thatcher Demko, but that’s about where the similarities end between the two goaltenders.

Demko, an 18-year-old freshman from San Diego, did not have to wait long to nab the starting job in Chestnut Hill, taking over as the Eagles’ full-time No. 1 last month after junior Brian Billett saw the bulk of the minutes during the first half of the season.

“When you’re splitting time, you’re playing every other game, you kind of have a hard time getting into a rhythm. It’s hard to stay focused throughout every weekend,” Demko told The Boston Globe over the weekend. “Playing every game the last couple of weekends here, it’s been nice to kind of get in a rhythm and stay into it and just know you’re going to hop back in next weekend.”

Witt, meanwhile, has been around for quite some time. A native of another nontraditional hockey hotbed — Brandon, Fla. — Witt joined the Huskies in 2010 but entered this season with just six career starts to his credit, having been buried on the bench behind four-year starter Chris Rawlings.

The 22-year-old has shown no signs of rust, though, starting all but five of Northeastern’s games and posting an NCAA Division I-leading .943 save percentage. Witt was voted Hockey East Goaltender of the Month for January, while Demko, who has lost just once in 13 starts this season, took home honors as the month’s top rookie.

“In a short tournament, you need goaltending, and obviously we feel confident in our goalie,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said. “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.”

Young guns vs. seasoned vets

No discussion of Hockey East awards would be complete without mentioning BC’s super line of Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Arnold, which has undoubtedly been the best in all of college hockey this season. Gaudreau, Hayes and Arnold rank first, second and fourth, respectively, in the nation in points, and Gaudreau, Hockey East’s Player of the Month for both January and November, also holds the rare title of being the Division I leader in both goals (24) and assists (32).

Freshman and Boston Bruins draftee Ryan Fitzgerald has put together a solid debut campaign thus far (nine goals, 14 assists), but that first line is clearly the engine that drives the BC offense, and it might be the best trio ever assembled in head coach Jerry York’s 19 seasons behind the Eagles’ bench.

“They could be three of the top players in the country, and they’re all together on one line,’’ Madigan said. “They’re smart, they’re skilled and they play off each other.”

They’re also experienced. This is the third Beanpot for Gaudreau and the fourth for Arnold and Hayes.

Northeastern enters this game with a much younger core of talent. With the exception of senior winger Braden Pimm, seven of the Huskies’ top eight scorers are in their first two years at the collegiate level, including points leader Kevin Roy, who earned Beanpot MVP honors last season as a freshman.

But, as Madigan pointed out after the win over Harvard, the Huskies are only young from an eligibility standpoint. There are no 18-year-olds on the Northeastern roster, and the team’s most highly regarded freshman, forward Mike Szmatula, who tallied a goal and two assists against the Crimson, turned 21 in August.

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