On a Rawl
Chris Rawlings' Excellence has NU Playing Confident
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
BOSTON Northeastern coach Jim Madigan praised his fourth line and defensemen for a solid effort that led to Adam Reid's second goal of the season. The score, which gave the Huskies a 1-0 lead at 3 minutes, 1 second of the second period against UMass-Lowell Saturday night, came when a Reid shot redirected into the net.
The Huskies certainly received a break on the play, but the possession nearly ended seconds before when freshman defenseman Dan Cornell kept the puck in the zone on an aggressive pinch from the point. Just 14 games into his career, Cornell's aggression resulted in a decision most rookies wouldn't make — moving in from the point and leaving the blue line barren. One turnover or lost puck battle could have sprung the opportunistic UMass-Lowell side for an odd-man rush. Ultimately, the play worked in Cornell and Northeastern's favor. The decision is bred from confidence — the type of confidence teams develop during extended winning streaks.
Saturday's 3-2 win over the River Hawks pushed NU's run to six games. But sophomore Cody Ferriero, who assisted on the Huskies' second goal, believes there's another major reason for Cornell's confidence in making that decision.
"[Chris Rawlings has] been great for us obviously," Ferriero said following Saturday's win. "We always know that he's going to have our backs there so we can take a few chances now and then. We don't like to give up odd-man ruses, but we're OK with giving up a few here and there to try and score goals because we've got him back there."
For the first portion of the season, Rawlings' presence may not have provided the same boost it's giving the Huskies right now. But, in his last six games, the junior is undefeated with a 1.28 goals against average and a .951 save percentage, and his teammates' play reflects their certainty in his excellence.
Against UML, a team riding a five-game win streak of its own entering Saturday, Rawlings and his teammates expected a strong test. The River Hawks play an aggressive system that features a strong two-man forecheck and consistent shots on goal from any and every angle. Rawlings has struggled at points in his career to adjust when teams keep shots low from any angle. That usually means rebounds and the 6-foot-5 netminder's control of those second chances has meant bad things in the past.
During this recent run of success, Rawlings has corrected this issue, though, darting from his crease and stopping pucks before they're on him. UML peppered Rawlings with 40 shots on Saturday night. A number most, including Rawlings, expected from the River Hawks. He stopped 38 of them.
Focusing on making that initial save and controlling the rebound is critical against UML, as the club's feisty forwards aren't shy about driving to the crease after a shot.
"We knew coming into tonight that they shoot from everyone and all angles," Rawlings said. "They just fire pucks on net and congregate around the net. So I knew it was going to be that kind of game. Coming into tonight, I was working all week on controlling rebounds and getting pucks away to make it easier on my D-men."
Making life easier for his teammates begins with stopping shots. As the Huskies have extended this streak, though, the confidence they draw from Rawlings' presence has boosted their games as well. Ferriero and his linemates — Steve Quailer and Braden Pimm — have formed one of the nation's most productive in recent weeks. While each player is certainly talented, their success coming just as Rawlings hits his own stride is hardly an accident.
Madigan notices the improvements in the efficiency of his players. They're skating better and moving the puck without that extra second guess that wipes out a scoring chance before even taking a shot. Behind them is Rawlings, and they know he'll bail them out when he has to.
"He's been fabulous. Cody alluded to it earlier, he plays with so much confidence and gives our team confidence," Madigan said of Rawlings. "We can take some chances at times. You don't go in thinking you're going to take chances, but our guys know they can play loose. There's nothing worse than playing this game when you don't have confidence in your goaltender. I've been there before, it's a tough way to approach the game. It's a tough mindset and mentality to have, and we're not there. We go in knowing we've got, what we think, is the best goaltender in the league."
Where Rawlings ranks among Hockey East's best goaltenders is a different debate for a different time. UML's Doug Carr and Merrimack's Joe Cannatta are in the conversation and deserve as much consideration as Rawlings. Right now, though, no coach nor goaltender can say they're playing as well as Rawlings. On this recent run, he has not allowed more than two goals at any point and made at least 33 saves three times, including a 4-1 win at Michigan.
Prior to the current winning streak, which began with a 5-2 win at Providence on Nov. 18, Rawlings and the Huskies failed to piece together much consistency. Their record stood at 1-7-2, Rawlings allowed at least four goals on four separate occasions. At no point was he solely to blame for an NU loss, but a junior goaltender on a fairly untested team with a first-year head coach has to provide solid efforts. Instead, the Huskies saw the occasionally brilliant, often unreliable performances that hampered Rawlings in his first two years at Matthews Arena.
"I'm not going to make excuses for myself," he said. "My freshman year, I was thrown into being a starter. Last year, I turned things around. So earlier on, it may have been a confidence thing, but I haven't changed anything. This is how I play, and I have confidence."
That assuredness has manifested itself throughout the Northeastern lineup, and the Huskies closed the first half by getting back to the .500 mark. Trying to carry it through the break, which ends on Dec. 30 against Princeton as part of the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis, will be difficult. But Rawlings and his teammates understand the success they're capable of when at their best.
"I'm giving my team a chance to win every night," Rawlings said. "That's my goal going into every game. As long as I can give them a chance to win, I know they're going to score some goals, and we can come out with a win. I feed off of their energy, and they feed off of mine. If I'm on my game, they're clicking and playing with more confidence knowing that I'm back there."
This hasn't always been the case for Northeastern, but Rawlings is determined. His motivation is obvious, as the Huskies continue to look for their first league championship since 1988. A feat they fell just two wins short of last season, when they lost, 5-4, to Boston College in the Hockey East Semifinals. Twice during that playoff run, then-coach Greg Cronin pulled Rawlings in favor of Clay Witt. Last season has little baring on the Huskies' motivation heading into 2012, but it is, however, a warning of just what can happen when a goaltender falls off his game and loses confidence.
Saturday night and for most of the last month, Rawlings' play has elevated him to one of the nation's best goaltenders. Set backs will come, but moving from them and maintaining the level of play that has made Northeastern a contender will be the next challenge for Rawlings to overcome.
Whether or not he'll meet that is unknown, but, after Northeastern's current run, it's safe to say Rawlings is pretty confident that he can.