If you go by the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll, very little was expected of Northeastern. The Huskies were predicted to finish 11th out of 11 teams.
But inside the locker room, the belief system was far different.
From coach Jim Madigan to captain Josh Manson to goaltender Clay Witt and everyone else on the team, they knew they were capable of much more than a spot in the basement.
Heading into the 62d Beanpot Tournament at TD Garden on Monday, NU is 15-8-3 overall and tied for second in the league standings (8-5-1) with UMass-Lowell.
But the Huskies haven’t won a Beanpot title since 1988. They will be facing Harvard (6-11-3) in the first game of the semifinals, with NU looking to advance to the championship game for the third time in four seasons. Harvard hasn’t won one since 1993.
Red-hot Boston College (19-4-3), which is 11-0-1 in its last 12 outings, will take on Boston University (8-14-3) in the nightcap.
But first things first.
“Anyone can win this tournament,’’ said Madigan, in his third season behind the bench. “It’s a matter of who is emotionally, mentally, and physically ready to play on that Monday night. The team that is, is usually going to win.’’
Despite how confident they are in their abilities this season, Madigan said calling Northeastern a Cinderella story isn’t a misnomer.
“It speaks to our guys who realize that not much was expected of them from the outside,’’ he said. “But a lot was expected from within the locker room from our leadership core last year. They know it’s a nice story, but at the same time we’ve been able to deliver the message that this story hasn’t played itself out yet. There is a long way to go and let’s just keep focused.’’
NU, which is 5-2-1 in the last eight games, was off this weekend, but earned a split at Notre Dame the previous weekend.
Sophomore forward Kevin Roy leads the team with 31 points, 14 of them goals, in 26 games. Freshman forward Mike Szmatula is second with 28 points.
Witt, a junior, has a 2.04 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage.
Madigan said the person who has rallied the team the most has been Manson, a hard-nosed junior defenseman who is the son of longtime NHLer Dave Manson.
“We’ve got a real good locker room and it’s because of him and our leadership core,’’ said Madigan. “But he’s the captain, he’s the one who keeps everything under control. It’s nice when your captain can have a little bit of an intimidating force and his father’s nickname was ‘Charlie Manson,’ who had the NHL pedigree, and Josh physically on the ice imposes his will a lot. He’s by far, on the ice and off the ice, our go-to guy.’’
As well as the Huskies have been playing, Madigan said it would be a grave mistake to look past Harvard, which ended a five-game winless streak (0-4-1) with a victory over Princeton Friday night at Bright-Landry Hockey Center.
“Last year, we had our ups and downs and we played a very good BU team [a 3-2 win in the Beanpot semifinals],’’ said Madigan. “That Monday night, we were the better team, so you can throw out records in this tournament.
“If anything, if you haven’t had a good year, and I’ve been there both as a player and a coach, then it’s the one tournament that can jump-start your push toward the end of the season and make your guys feel good about themselves and carry that into the playoffs. Harvard has done that over the last few years. We’re cognizant of that and they’re a well-coached team and they’ve got a lot of good players.’’
When NU was struggling, Madigan said they tried to use the Beanpot as a way to turn the season in the Huskies’ favor as they moved closer to the stretch run. This year, because of their relative success, it’s a different approach.
“This year, we’re in a better position in the league standings and there are still six games left,’’ said Madigan. “Our guys understand the importance of each game. Some of that importance of your nonconference games might not be measured until March. So, it’s a little bit of a different situation, but every game counts. For our seniors who have been in two Beanpot finals and haven’t won, it’s a more significant reason why we want to play well and win it for them.’’
Harvard coach Ted Donato, in his 10th season as bench boss at his alma mater, said it would mean a lot to advance to next Monday’s championship.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had any measurable success so every year provides a new opportunity,’’ said Donato, whose team has made it to the championship game just three times in the last 20 years and lost them all. “We’re looking forward to it. It’s a great experience. We have a particularly young team so we have a lot of guys going through it for the first time.’’