November 28, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Northeastern's Early Roll

by Tim Rosenthal/Staff Writer

When talking about surprise teams in the 2007-08 season, one might talk about RPI, Minnesota-Duluth, Bowling Green or even Ferris State. The team most eyebrow-raising, however, is Northeastern.

After a 1-4 start, the Huskies have gone unbeaten in the last six (5-0-1). The Huskies' 13 points in Hockey East (6-3-1 in conference play) have them atop the conference by three points over Massachusetts.

"We were cautiously optimistic based upon the momentum we built upon last year," said third-year Northeastern coach Greg Cronin, who saw his squad improve their win total by 10 games in 2006-07 from 2005-06. "We weren't quite sure if the large freshmen and sophomore classes were going to be responsible for fueling the momentum for going forward this year.

"Clearly when we started out 1-4 we had some concerns. However I liked the way we played, we just didn't get the results."

The freshmen class this season has been huge, led by British Columbia products Tyler McNeely and Wade MacLeod, who are playing on a line with junior Joe Vitale.

"We are pretty happy so far, but not satisfied," said Vitale, a captain and reigning Hockey East player of the week.

Junior Joe Vitale leads Northeastern with 13 points through 11 games.

Junior Joe Vitale leads Northeastern with 13 points through 11 games.

"We passed a lot of expectations so far. Our biggest goal is not to get too comfortable."

The stats are there. Goal scoring is up. The defense has been solid, goaltending strong. But it's the intangibles that are making the greatest difference.

"As coaches you're responsible for creating a culture," Cronin noted. "Some players adapt to it quickly while others struggle with it. It is an issue of accountability and style. There is a style in which creates that accountability which creates the transition from one coaching staff to another a critical piece of that culture change. What reinforces that is when you win."

And it helps having the goaltending, which is carried by last year's Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Brad Thiessen.

"All the guys have one goal in mind and that is to win," said Thiessen, an Aldergrove, British Columbia, native.

One of the toughest places to play in Hockey East has to be the Whittemore Center in Durham, New Hampshire. In fact the last time the Huskies got a win at UNH was during the 1997-98 season. This year the Huskies won both games in the hostile environment.

"It was an unbelievable experience," said Vitale. "UNH is a heck of a hockey team and we got great goaltending."

"Being able to go into that environment and win was great," Thiessen said. "Being able to win a quality game gave us a big boost."

Said Cronin: "It is a unique accountability. There was a unique focus to that game. The night before UNH dominated us, nobody had dominated us all year. It woke us up and made us realize our attention to detail had to be much better for that game."

Many things have been different this year on St. Botolph Street. The Huskies are quickly becoming relevant again.

Two years ago the Huskies only won three games.

"It is hard to lump in differences between the first year [2005-06] and last [2006-07]," Cronin stated. "Last year with the exception of November, we had four months with a winning record. Things started to come together."

Though he was not there in 2005-06, Thiessen has seen improvements as well from his freshman year to his sophomore.

"We have been pulling out the close wins," Thiessen said. "We have been making big plays and things have been going our way instead of their way."

This squad is doing it with one senior, Jimmy Russo, and he has only seen eight games so far this year.

"We have a lot of young guys," Vitale noted. "Everyone takes a lot of responsibility. They are pulling the rope and coming to practice. They are good guys on and off the ice."

"To wear a 'C' or an 'A' does not make you a leader, you lead by example," said Cronin. "We have injected the lineup with players who have more believability to them. ... You drill down a little bit of executing that game plan, the mentality changes."

Thanks to the consistency the last few games, the Huskies are on a roll. If they can stay this way, Northeastern might be looking at big things come Beanpot or conference tournament time.

"The confidence has built up," said Vitale. "We have been working hard during the weeks and hopefully we can keep it rolling.

The most consistent aspect so far might be the penalty kill. The Huskies are second in Hockey East, killing 87.5 percent of their penalties.

Though the Huskies are having a great season up to date, there is still room for improvement.

"The power play has to get better," Cronin said. "The offense as well has to get better."

This year, parity has reigned in Hockey East. Near the top with Northeastern is UMass and Providence, teams you don't hear often when talking about the conference powers.

"The coaching is good, teams have stepped up in their recruiting and the talent is there." Cronin said.

Though the Huskies are enjoying things thus far, we are only nearly a third of the way through the college hockey season.

"It is a marathon not a sprint. We are excited about the start, but, we have a lot of work to do," Cronin said. "Success will be driven by determination of the young kids."

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