Witt and Wisdom
Goaltender Helping Spark Northeastern's Season
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Staring straight ahead, Clay Witt eyed his competition. Across the neutral zone awaiting the start of Friday's game between Northeastern and Providence stood Friar goaltender Jon Gillies. As the national anthem echoed throughout Matthews Arena, Witt's glare never shifted.
He knew beating Providence required more than a strong performance from himself, but he knew just as well he needed to be better than Gillies. Whether or not Witt's pregame staredown of Gillies, widely considered the best goaltender in college hockey, worked is known only to Gillies. Witt believes it did, though.
The goal Northeastern freshman Mike Szmatula scored seven seconds into regulation is proof, he thinks.
"I told (Szmatula) I'm taking the assist for the goal," Witt joked after Friday's game, which ended in a 3-3 tie. "I definitely freaked (Gillies) out a bit there."
Witt won't get an assist, and he didn't earn a win for his 52-save effort in the draw. More than any other player on the ice, Friar or Husky, Witt deserved the victory.
Providence dominated possession on Friday for all 65 minutes played. Witt was up to almost every shot. The slapshots through screens found Witt's chest. The deflections through the crease disappeared under his glove. The odd-man rushes ended with pad saves, some spectacular and others quickly becoming what's expected of the redshirt junior finally getting his chance to become Northeastern's unquestioned No. 1.
"We've got three great goaltenders," Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said on Friday, as he has all season.
At this point, Madigan's claims seem like little more than lip service. Both redshirt freshman Derick Roy and redshirt senior Bryan Mountain have played well in their limited opportunities. Neither has performed to the level Witt has through the season's first half. In 12 starts this season, Witt has a .940 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average.
The Huskies, expected to occupy Hockey East's basement, are off to a 9-5-2 start. After Friday's draw with Providence, Northeastern is 3-4-1 in Hockey East play. No one on St. Botolph Street is satisfied with that record in league play, but a few results clearly demonstrate the potential Northeastern has to make some noise into the second half.
"I don't pay attention to polls of any kind. I never have," Madigan said. "They don't know what we have in that room. I do."
Szmatula, sophomore forward Kevin Roy and other skaters have enjoyed great success through this first week in December. No Northeastern player has performed as consistently as Witt.
Friday night, the Huskies built a 3-0 lead mostly through the individual excellence of Szmatula, Kevin Roy and senior Braden Pimm. It was Providence, despite the deficit, dominating possession and vastly out-shooting Northeastern. After two periods, PC held a 28-16 advantage in shots but trailed 3-0. Not until a third-period onslaught could the Friars beat Witt. He faced 25 shots in the period and held on as long as he could.
Witt's success is well deserved after a trying first three seasons with the program. Playing behind four-year starter Chris Rawlings and dealing with a number of injuries meant Witt spent a majority of those three years on the bench or in street clothes watching his teammates.
As a freshman, Witt shared time with Rawlings toward the end of the season when Rawlings started struggling. Despite the promising first season, injuries and inconsistency plagued him the following two years. At one point, it wasn't clear if Witt would ever get a chance to even compete for playing time.
"My freshman year, I was solidly in the backup role," Witt said. "(Rawlings) had a pretty good year that season. I got to play a little bit, and I thought I played pretty well. My sophomore year, I had some injury problems. I had to battle through that. Again, I was in the backup role since Rawls was the guy. That's the way it is. Last year, I was injured all season. It was tough, but I knew this year it was going to be a three-way battle."
Prior to the 2012-13 season, Gillies was scheduled to enroll at Northeastern. He backed out of his commitment, partially because Rawlings was entrenched as the No. 1, and eventually landed at Providence to lead the Friars' ongoing resurgence. The decision cost Northeastern an all-American-caliber goaltender, but it also meant Witt would get his chance.
"I'm a Husky," Witt said. "I've always liked it here. I have a good foundation at Northeastern. I have a good relationship with everyone at this school. This was always my place. I knew eventually Rawlings was going to move on, and I didn't have much of a resume to build on to go anywhere else. I just had to wait for my chance."
Through 14 games, neither Witt nor Madigan is satisfied with Northeastern's results. Friday's draw was the third time this season the Huskies have wasted a third-period lead in a Hockey East game.
A shortened Hockey East schedule only made points more precious. Earning one against Providence isn't a bad result, but it's a loss if Witt isn't as excellent as he was. Despite the minimal expectations placed on Northeastern by the rest of the league, wins are expected by Madigan, Witt and every man in the locker room. Taking a point out of the game with Providence isn't a moral victory. For Witt on a personal level, a draw with Gillies isn't good enough either.
"No," he snapped at the notion a draw is acceptable, "I wanted to beat him."