It isn’t always a negative to have other people underestimate you. Take the case of 20th-ranked Northeastern.
When the Hockey East men’s preseason coaches’ poll was released Sept. 24, the Huskies were picked to finish last out of 11 teams.
It’s early yet, of course, but so far, they have been proving people wrong.
Heading into this weekend’s two-game series at St. Lawrence, NU is 4-0-0 for the first time since the 1993-94 season, when the team finished 19-13-7 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies have many new faces and coach Jim Madigan said everyone is contributing. Seventeen players have at least one point and freshman forward Mike Szmatula has chipped in eight points in four games (one goal, seven assists). NU has scored 20 goals and allowed just six.
“I thought we’d have real good offensive players and that we would be able to generate [scoring],’’ said Madigan, who is in his third year behind the bench. “What I knew we really needed to work on was our team defense. We were going to be young and inexperienced in goal and we needed a total commitment in our defensive area. We gave up way too many goals last year.’’
The Huskies scored just 59 goals in Hockey East play last season and surrendered 97, the most in the conference. New Hampshire gave up the fewest goals in league play with 58. Madigan’s goal is to be much closer to UNH’s number this season, and so far NU is on track.
There are some exciting newcomers and Szmatula is one of the most noticeable players among the new-look Huskies.
“He’s a high-energy player,’’ said Madigan. “He plays 200 feet and knows how to play both ends of the rink. He’s a kid who is always on pucks.’’
His seven assists in the first four games seem to indicate he is more of a setup man than a goal scorer but Madigan said that’s not true.
“A couple of his assists have been deflections by Braden Pimm, off his body or off his stick in front of the net,’’ said Madigan. “He’s been around the net, he just hasn’t been able to score as many, but he’s going to get his goals because he does have a good shot. When all is said and done, [his points will] be equally distributed between goals and assists.’’
Madigan’s game plan when the season started was to have a goaltending rotation of senior Bryan Mountain, junior Clay Witt, and redshirt freshman Derick Roy. So far, Witt and Roy have each played two games. Witt has played in 18 career games and Mountain 20.
“I’ve got three goalies who are very good,’’ said Madigan. “I’m not going to go with a three-goaltender rotation but I’m going to use three goalies in a two-goaltender rotation. I hadn’t had a chance to see Clay Witt in a year because of a redshirt or Derick Roy, who was redshirted last year, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to see how they were going to respond to a game situation. That second week became the same situation. I thought they both played well. I wanted to see both of them again in another situation. I have three goalies I feel very comfortable with and confident in playing. Bryan will get an opportunity at some point also.’’
As well as it has gone for the Huskies, the schedule ahead is far from easy. After this weekend, they square off against Boston College in a home-and-home series, then travel to UMass and follow with two against New Hampshire.
“Our schedule is going to get much more difficult and our hope is that with each week, we’ll get better, so as our schedule gets tougher, we’ll be making improvements,’’ said Madigan. “From the early point, it was building up some confidence. We’ve had eight freshmen in the lineup this year. I like the locker room because we have good leadership in there.’’
Crimson drop the puck
Harvard opens its 114th season this weekend when the Crimson host Bentley on Saturday night. Coach Ted Donato kicks off his 10th campaign in Cambridge. Harvard adds nine freshmen to the roster. Donato is expecting a big year from sophomore forward Jimmy Vesey, who was tied with fellow rookie Brian Hart for second in scoring last year with 20 points.
“I think he’ll be one of the top players in college hockey,’’ said Donato.
The winner of the Big Ten-Hockey East Challenge will be decided this weekend. One of the biggest series pits No. 1 Minnesota against No. 5 Boston College in a two-game set at Mariucci Arena. Hockey East is up, 9-4, in the challenge with seven games remaining. Six of the seven will be played in Big Ten arenas. Another key matchup is No. 3 Miami at No. 8 Providence for a pair of games and No. 14 Boston University at No. 4 Michigan on Friday and at Michigan State on Saturday. No. 2 Notre Dame is at Minnesota-Duluth for a pair. UMass-Lowell is at Michigan State on Friday and at Michigan on Saturday.