BU's Nieto Takes Game to New Heights
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
It’s hard to identify the marquee player of Boston University’s deep group of sophomores. Six of the eight-person class contributes on a regular basis and they are developing into a reliable bunch working to transform a team that struggled at times last year.
But with exceptionally consistent and strong all-round play, forward Matt Nieto is rapidly emerging as perhaps the best of that group.
The sophomore from Long Beach, Calif., has scored in all five BU games this year, including Friday night’s 2-2 tie against Massachusetts. He’s the first Terrier to have a five-game scoring streak since Bryan Ewing in the 2007-08 season. Nieto now leads the team in goals and points with his two-point performance Friday.
Though disappointed with his team’s effort in its last two games since defeating No. 3 Denver, BU coach Jack Parker noted that Nieto was one of a handful of players who played well in both. In a season marked by decidedly inconsistent play so far this year, Nieto’s efforts have become even more critical.
Friday’s goal was perhaps the best example.
Nieto’s goal shifted the momentum toward BU near the end of the second period, halving the team’s two-goal deficit and silencing the boisterous Mullins Center crowd. The preceding play involved BU clumsily surrendering the puck at the red line, with UMass forward Conor Sheary earning a clear breakaway.
Goalie Kieran Millan’s aggressive angle and stickwork prevented a shot on net and the back-checking Nieto led the rush back the other direction. A few seconds later, he collected a centering pass from linemate Charlie Coyle and he put the puck through UMass goalie Kevin Boyle’s legs.
Nieto also had a key role in the Terriers’ other goal, sending a perfect centering pass to fellow sophomore Sahir Gill that allowed for a simple finish.
Nieto’s domination of the score sheet is helping to drive this hockey team. In a loss to Holy Cross last weekend, the sophomore helped lead an ultimately failed comeback attempt with a goal and assist. He also scored an energizing short-handed goal against Denver.
Nieto’s five-game goal streak is essentially an extension of his strong play to end last year. Though overshadowed by a home ice loss to Northeastern in the Hockey East Quarterfinals, he finished the season with 13 points in his final 11 games.
“I thought he was our best player the dozen games of last year,” Parker said after Friday’s tie. “And he’s continued playing that way this season.”
However, that was in stark contrast to the beginning of last year, as he managed only two points in his first 11 games at the collegiate level. The sophomore admits needing time to adapt to its speed and physicality — after coing to BU from the U.S. National Under-18 Development Program – rather than a lack of ability.
“I think it was more to do with me adjusting to the game at the Hockey East-level,” Nieto said.
Parker cites Nieto’s better utilization of his physical tools and increased work rate.
“He’s learned to use his speed better and he’s become more effective on the forecheck,” Parker said. “When he plays hard, his hockey is very good.”
Parker’s consistent use of the sophomore in all special teams situations indicates the amount of confidence the coach has in Nieto.
And on several occasions Friday night, the sophomore blew past UMass defensemen to create scoring chances out of seemingly little opportunity.
Certainly one’s linemates can have a substantial role in determining point totals in hockey. And Nieto is spoiled in that regard. He’s spent the vast majority of this season with Charlie Coyle (last year’s Hockey East Rookie of the Year) and Alex Chiasson (34 points in 2010-11).
But in an attempt to spark his team, Parker added Gill to the Nieto-Coyle combination after being frustrated with Chiasson’s inconsistency Friday night. That line appeared to develop instant chemistry and produced the tying goal against UMass.
With potential concerns about not starting strong completely eliminated, the forward can focus on becoming one of the best young players in Hockey East.
“I really focused on having a good start coming out of the gate this season,” Nieto said. “Last year I didn’t have the best start, so I tried to be focused and have a better one this year.”
The sophomore will also have an opportunity at the next level, as he was one of two BU sophomores selected in this year’s NHL draft. He went No. 47 overall to the San Jose Sharks, while defenseman Adam Clendening went earlier in the round to Chicago.