by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The run that Greg Cronin has taken the Northeastern program on since his arrival — leading a once-crestfallen program to heights not seen in decades — is something Massachusetts coach Don Cahoon can relate to. In fact, he almost did it at Northeastern, before doing similar things with the Minutemen.
Now, the two coaches will square off against each other. In fact, it's the first time the two programs will face each other in the Hockey East tournament, which begins with the Best-of-3 quarterfinals this weekend.
Cahoon nearly got the Northeastern job when Bruce Crowder was hired in 1996. A few years later, Cahoon took on the task of resurrecting a program — UMass — that never really had much history to begin with. Slowly but surely, he got Massachusetts to the Hockey East final — losing the epic 3OT game to Maine in 2004, his fourth season. Two seasons ago, UMass finally won 20 games, made the NCAAs, and defeated Clarkson in the first round.
Cronin, of course, took over for Crowder, broke everything down — winning just three games his first season — and built it up again, and then some. This year, as is well-chronicled by now, he got Northeastern within a hair of winning its first Hockey East regular-season title, and is in line for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1994.
"Coach Cronin has done a tremendous job, and is deserving of all the accolades that he’s going to get in the future," Cahoon said. "Their team has had one of the best years in program history, and it has a lot to do with his leadership and his ability to get his guys to rally around some concepts that they fully bought into."
By the same token, Cahoon has seen the difficulties in sustaining that. He's been in position of being the darling upstart, he's been in position of being the subsequent team with high expectations who succumb to its weight, and he's been in position of the team trying to take advantage of the favorite's over-confidence.
Which of these two teams winds up in which position this weekend, remains to be seen. But one thing we know so far — UMass won two of the three meetings between the teams this season.
"I think we’ve caught them at times when they’ve come off huge series," Cahoon said, downplaying any sort of "trick" to beating the Huskies. "I think when they came out here, Coach Cronin made it very clear that they didn’t bring their best game. We played really well for two periods and then they hammered us in the third, but we managed to survive. In the second game out here, we got off to a good start, and then they hammered us in the second half and ended up walking away with a win. And in the third game, our backs were really against the wall, and we needed to get something going. And we brought as good a game as we’ve brought all season, and we were able to walk away with the win.
"I don’t think it’s the matchup, and I don’t think that those games have anything to do with this weekend."
UMass, of course, had higher hopes this year than a seventh-place finish and 15-18-3 record, but counting it out would be a mistake.
"I think our record speaks for itself," Cahoon said. "We’ve been a hard team to figure out, both internally and externally. It seems to go as our team offenses and special teams go. When we bring our best, like most of the teams in this league, we’re going to be competitive with almost everyone."
Like most teams this time of year, staying out of the box will be crucial. But it's something that particularly affected the Minutemen throughout the course of the season, because it doesn't have the depth through four lines like some other top HEA teams.
"Off and on throughout the season, we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble when we’ve taken several penalties in succession," Cahoon said. "Many of our key players that play special teams and a lot of 5-on-5 hockey end up getting fatigued. And we end up playing ourselves out of the game because we’ve got our backs against the wall killing penalties; it just exhausts your team."
Cahoon's team will have to be sharp against Northeastern, obviously. Cronin has built a disciplined unit, in all aspects.
"It’s no easy task to disrupt their abilities, to penetrate their tenacious play, and be able to
get be productive enough to cause some problems that could create an upset," Cahoon said.