BOSTON — The last two times Northeastern earned a trip to the Beanpot championship game, they entered the final as major underdogs.
That won’t be the case this year.
The No. 10/11 Huskies demolished Harvard 6-0 in the tournament’s first semifinal Wednesday evening, securing a spot in next Monday’s title game for the third time in the last four years.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Harvard head coach Ted Donato, whose team is headed to the consolation game for a sixth consecutive year. “We didn’t play well in any facet of the game. Northeastern played a simple, strong game. We were never really able to get anything going.”
Six different players scored for Northeastern, with freshman center Mike Szmatula leading the way with a goal and two assists. Szmatula is at the forefront of the Huskies’ youth movement, which was showcased to perfection against an overmatched Crimson squad. Fellow freshmen Dalen Hedges — who beat Harvard goalie Raphael Girard for the game’s first goal — and John Stevens each chipped in with two points, as did sophomores Kevin Roy and Colton Saucerman.
“They’ve got a lot of hockey experience,” Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said of his freshman class, the top point-scoring first-year group in the nation. “… And Szmatula just competes. Whatever league he’s in — and he’s been in two or three junior leagues — he’s been in the top five in scoring.
“We’re happy with all our freshman. They’ve integrated very well with our upperclassmen, and that’s what’s nice to see. This is truly a fun group to coach.”
Madigan listed goaltending, special teams and discipline as his three keys to success. The Huskies certainly exemplified those first two qualities Monday night, with Witt pitching a shutout and three of their six goals coming on the power play. The third one? Not so much.
The two teams combined for 76 penalty minutes in the contest, a scorekeeper’s nightmare that produced this disaster of a box score.
Northeastern finished with a higher PIMs total (41), but Harvard’s were more costly. The Crimson canceled out three power plays with penalties of their own, and the choppiness of the game prevented them from putting together any sort of momentum.
“That’s not a successful formula, to play in your own zone, take a lot of penalties,” Donato said. “We took ourselves off of three power plays, so we really shot ourselves in the foot.”
The most severe of those penalties was the five-minute major and game misconduct assessed to Northeastern captain and top-pairing defenseman Josh Manson. Manson leveled Harvard’s Alexander Kerfoot with a hit to the head at the 14:12 mark of the first period, awarding the Crimson a five-minute power play and forcing the Huskies to play the final 45 minutes with just five D-men.
“That’s a huge loss for us,” said junior goalie Clay Witt, who finished with 27 saves in his first taste of Beanpot action. “He’s an outstanding player, and he’s definitely the heart of our team. We kind of knew that everybody had to pitch in a little bit. We had some guys who really stepped up today.”
The skaters in front on Witt did step up, clogging passing lanes and limiting Harvard to just two shots during the five-minute advantage. That allowed the Huskies to go into the intermission up 2-0, and a goal by Torin Snydeman just 31 seconds into the second period all but sealed it.
The shutout was the fourth of the season for Witt, Hockey East’s Goaltender of the Month for January and the Division I leader in save percentage (.945).
No stranger to the stage
This is Northeastern’s third trip to the Beanpot final in the last four years, and fourth in the last six, but the Huskies, who last won the tournament in 1988, still own the longest title drought among the four competing schools.
This year’s Northeastern squad — picked to finish last in the Hockey East preseason poll — is the best the school has seen in years, though, dating back to the team that entered the 2009 Beanpot championship game ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Huskies entered the tournament ranked second in the conference behind only Boston College, the team that defeated them in the last three Beanpots and their likely championship opponent barring an upset in the second semifinal.
Madigan was quick, though, to point out the value of regular-season wins.
“We haven’t won anything,” the coach said. “We’ve had a series of wins. You win at the end of the year. But I truly like [this] team and makeup, and the chemistry and how they support each other.”
Photo via Twitter/@GoNUmhockey