November 8, 2007
Young Northeastern Seeks Direction

By Jeff Howe

By the end of the season, the Huntington Hounds might live up to their nickname. Right now, though, they’re still puppies.

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin knows he has a tall task at hand in developing one of the youngest teams in Hockey East into a winner. There isn’t a single player on the team who knows how it feels to win a postseason game. Heck, the program hasn’t reached the Garden since 1994, when the Garden really was the Garden, people could smoke indoors in Massachusetts, and Whitey Bulger could still walk the streets of Southie.

Hockey East Notebook

Northeastern captain Joe Vitale share the team lead in points with two goals and three assists through six games.

National TV Schedule

But the Huskies entered this season with lofty expectations. They fought hard down the stretch last year, finishing at an 11-8-3 clip after Dec. 1, 2006, and finding a potential star in goalie Brad Thiessen. They found out through a 2-4-0 start this season, however, that expectations don’t mean a whole lot.

“I think in most times when you’re building a program, some coaches are blessed with an even distribution between the classes,” Cronin said. “So as you’re trying to create a culture, you want that culture to really be executed by the older guys. They have the maturity and the wisdom to be able to demonstrate that, not only during the game but during the week in practice.

“We don’t have that here, so we have to learn every game. We’ve played six games. Given the fact that there’s no seniors on the team, our young guys have to absorb information very quickly and demonstrate the ability to adapt and execute a game plan. And that game plan is going to revolve around our identity.”

The Huskies haven’t exactly been bad through the season’s first month, save last Friday’s 7-4 beatdown by New Hampshire at Matthews Arena. But they’ve learned quickly how much experience matters. After beating Providence in the season opener, Northeastern lost consecutive home games to North Dakota, Maine (twice), and New Hampshire. NU trailed the Sioux 1-0 in the third before falling by a 3-0 score. On Oct.26, the Huskies were tied 2-2 with Maine midway through the third, before a breakdown in their own zone allowed the Black Bears to score the game-winning goal. The following night, the Huskies trailed 4-1 in the third period but fell to Maine, 4-3. Two hard-fought games turned into two losses, causing Cronin to say his team left that weekend with an “identity crisis.”

“We’ve been there in every game,” Thiessen added. “We just haven’t been able to pull it out in the end, just a few little mental mistakes here and there that can happen with a young team.

“I don’t think you can fault us for not working hard. I know Coach Cronin talks to us about working hard and working smart. You can work hard, but if you’re not working smart and doing the right things, it’s kind of all for naught. We’ve brought the same intensity. I think maybe just sometimes we’ve been out of place defensively, or a mistake here and there, and those have been costing us.”

Thiessen has also struggled this season. After going 11-17-5 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .921 save percentage to put himself on the map last year, he’s got a 3.19 goals-against average and .890 save percentage while starting all six games this season.

He was pulled after giving up five goals in two periods against UNH last Friday, but Cronin stuck with his netminder Saturday. Thiessen responded with his best game this season, stopping 23 shots in a 2-1 win at the Whittemore Center.

“The first five or six games here, I can’t say I’ve been happy with the way I played,” Thiessen said. “It’s been a bit of a struggle so far, but going into Saturday, I just put everything behind, went in with a new mindset, focused on the little things that made me successful last year."

“He’s been good, but he hasn’t been great,” Cronin said of Thiessen. “He was great for most of the year last year, and I think he was very, very good against UNH the second night. Brad’s strength is his ability to stay poised and to be confident, and fortunately, he’s been that.

“That’s what’s going to enable him to be a better goalie as the season progresses. He’s hit some potholes the first three weeks here, but it hasn’t affected him at all psychologically, which is a huge bonus with a goalie.”

The win at UNH wasn’t just huge for Thiessen, though. It was paramount for the program, marking the Huskies’ first victory against the Wildcats in 19 meetings, and the first triumph at the Whitt since Feb. 28, 1998. It also gave Northeastern a measure of momentum as its tough early-season stretch continues — the Huskies' next three games are home against Vermont, home against Boston University, and at UNH again. For Cronin, the win over the Wildcats gave him the sense of satisfaction that his team was listening and, more importantly, learning.

“What we learned against UNH was when we don’t play structured hockey, we’re vulnerable because we give up odd-man rushes, and we’re not a team that can trade odd-man rushes with a team like UNH,” Cronin said of the difference between games during last weekend’s series. “They automatically realize that if they’re not responsible with the puck, and they’re not responsible away from the puck, it’s going to be an ugly night. And that’s the first step in our ability to play competitive hockey. We learned that right out of the gate.”


Not your average Joe: The Hockey East Association announced Tuesday it has extended the contract of commissioner Joe Bertagna through the 2010-11 season. Bertagna has been with Hockey East since 1997, and he’s the longest serving commissioner in the conference’s 24-year history.

“Hockey East continues to be regarded as one of the finest hockey conferences in the country, and Joe deserves considerable credit for that,” said Dana Skinner, chair of the Hockey East Executive Committee, in a statement. “His passion for the sport of hockey combined with his extensive insight of collegiate athletics will prove valuable as the league establishes new standards of excellence in the coming years.”

Among Bertagna’s many accomplishments, he engineered a multiyear television deal in his first month on the job and sparked the interest in the Hockey East tournament, which sold out for the first time in 2000. To Bertagna’s credit, he has never changed the format of the tourney, which changed its structure almost every year from 1985-96. Since his arrival, Hockey East has expanded to 10 teams, adding Vermont prior to the 2005-06 season.

Bertagna also played a large role in forming the Hockey East women’s league.

Great Weekend Getaway
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Boston Coll. at New Hampshire (Sat.)
It’s no accident these two teams were tied atop the preseason coaches poll. Last year’s Hockey East regular-season champion (UNH) and tournament champion (BC) figure to be fighting it out deep into March and possibly April yet again. This showdown provides our first mano y mano glimpse.

What To Do While You’re There: Head to Stoke 701, which has probably been turned into a shrine by now. Or, if you just want a good slice, head to Durham House of Pizza (DHOP, as the locals call it).

Stick Salute

Not that we have any reason to believe Hockey East was actually looking elsewhere, but the league’s decision to re-up Joe Bertagna was a great move. Hockey East has made great strides under his watch (see his accomplishments listed above). He’s very visible at the rinks and always makes himself available to the media. Hockey East will only improve over the next four years.

Bench Minor

Vermont is 0-for-20 on the power play heading into this weekend's games at Northeastern and Merrimack, and has given up a shorthanded goal.


Maine goalie Ben Bishop is probably the league’s MVP to this point. He was the Hockey East Goaltender of the Month for the third-straight October, and he earned the league’s Defensive Player of the Week honors for the first week of November. Bishop has allowed just one goal 24 times in his career, and he is 22-0-2 in those contests.

Merrimack’s win at UMass Lowell last Thursday marked the Warriors’ first victory over the River Hawks in 11 meetings. It was also Merrimack’s first Hockey East victory in 19 games dating back to a 2-1 win over UMass Jan. 5.

UMass beat Merrimack 5-1 Saturday, the eighth straight win for the Minutemen over the Warriors at the Mullins Center.

Boston College has killed 44-of-46 penalties this season for a 95.7 percent success rate, the second-best mark in the nation. The Eagles have also scored six power-play goals in their last four games, and their 25.7 percent success rate on the power play this season ranks fifth nationally.

Boston University’s seven goals in a 7-4 win against UMass Lowell Saturday marked BU’s highest ever output at Agganis Arena.

Northeastern’s first five games were at home this season, the first time that’s happened since 1948-49, when the Huskies opened with 10 straight at home.

Vermont’s opponents aren’t just beating the Catamounts, who are 0-3-1 this season — they’re pretty much beating everybody. UVM’s opposition has a combined 13-2-3 record thus far.

The Catamounts play Northeastern Friday, which is a good thing for UVM goalie Joe Fallon. The senior is 5-0-2 with a 1.00 goals against average against Northeastern, and he’s registered four of his 17 career shutouts against the Huskies.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. Jeff Howe can be reached at