March 11, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Huskies Show Growth in Cronin's Return

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

BOSTON — In his first game back from a 17-day suspension, Northeastern coach Greg Cronin led his club against a familiar adversary in an equally recognizable setting.

The sixth-seeded Huskies opened the 2011 Hockey East Tournament at Agganis Arena Thursday night against third-seeded Boston University. For Cronin, getting everything back to normal was a good thing. Just forget about the allegations of recruiting violations aimed at him and assistant coach Albie O’Connell and play hockey.

“Nothing against [interim head coach Sebastien Laplante], but it’s my team,” Cronin said following Game 1. “Albie did a good job recruiting those kids. I look at Wade [MacLeod], Steve [Silva], Tyler [McNeely], [Mike] Hewkin and [Randy] Guzior, and they’ve been around here for four years now. It’s funny, because I didn’t feel any different. Even before the game, we had the same routine. We did the same things we always did. I don’t even feel like I was gone.”

The game, much like the opponent, the setting and the faces surrounding Cronin in the locker room, was basically the same as every time Cronin led his Huskies across Boston and up Commonwealth Avenue. Same pressure, same hostility, same back-and-forth between the students of the two Boston schools, separated by about two miles and a few stops on the Green Line – just what the embattled bench boss needed.

For his players, the setting proved ideal as well. Northeastern defeated BU, 4-2, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series, which continues Friday night with Game 2 at Agganis.

A little more than a year ago, the Huskies and the Terriers closed the 2009-10 regular season with a home-and-home pair. When the second of the two games began, Northeastern clung to sixth place in the Hockey East standings. Sixty minutes of game time later, the Huskies landed in ninth place, dropping a difficult one-goal decision to the Terriers and failing to qualify for the conference tournament.

The devastation seemed almost tangible after the game. Fans sat drooped in their stands, as their thoughts shifted from who their team may draw in the playoffs to which players were returning for the 2010-11 season.

One of those players coming back was Steve Silva. The senior scored twice Thursday night in the Huskies’ win – his ninth and 10th goals of the season. The five seniors in uniform understood the gravity of the situation entering the game with BU; one false step and their seasons – and careers – could be over.

With the memory of March 6, 2010 – the night a promising season became last season – in their minds, the Huskies entered the 2010-11 campaign certain of one thing. Effort and commitment meant they wouldn’t find themselves in that spot again.

“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Cronin said of the 2009-10 season. “It’s funny because I was thinking about the playoffs. I was like ‘I’ve made the playoffs every year.’ But we weren’t in the playoffs last year. It felt like we were, though, because every game was like a playoff game. I think there’s definitely a mentality with these guys that they want to do well. They want to win. The confidence I saw earlier in the year was puzzling because we [weren’t winning]. The sky was falling. They were screaming at me from the stands telling me how poor of a coach I was and that I should sell my house. But I was very calm about it, and the kids had the same attitude. There was no defeatist attitude. I knew we would start winning.”

Cronin wondered at times where his club pulled its confidence from. After losing to Providence in their season opener, the confidence didn’t budge. They kept working, maintained their commitment and waited. Losses to defending national champion Boston College, Holy Cross, Bentley and Niagara followed for Northeastern with a win over Massachusetts-Lowell and a pair of ties against Rensselaer and New Hampshire woven in between. Through its first 11 games of the season, Northeastern’s record stood at 1-7-3.

It didn’t matter. Cronin’s club remained confident. Just keep working, and the breaks will come. Of the seven losses, three came by one goal and another three came by a pair. A few more fortuitous breaks, a couple fewer posts, another power play or two and they’d get those wins.

No one at Northeastern, not Silva or Cronin, not goaltender Chris Rawlings or freshman Rob Dongara, can point to the exact moment when the Huskies transformed from an underachieving club to one of the hottest teams in Hockey East. It happened, though, and it has them one with away from the Hockey East semifinals and two victories from a chance to play for a conference championship.

“It’s so true, when I was coaching in the NHL and AHL, everybody would say the same thing ‘Just focus on one game at a time,’”Cronin said. “So what? We won the first game. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a best-of-three, and the team that wins two wins. One day you feel good about yourself, but if you’re feeling too good about yourself, you’ll get punched right in the mouth the next day. Jack’s team is going to be ready [Friday night]. I guarantee that. We talked about it after the game. It was a good game, but I don’t care.”

The Huskies can earn the first of those wins Friday night in Game 2. Another similar setting for Cronin and his team, a potential season-shifting tilt with Boston University at Agganis Arena – a place where they hadn’t won in nine tries and six years before last Saturday. They won again there Thursday night.

Friday night, they’ll skate back onto Jack Parker Rink at Agganis Arena with a familiar task at hand in a familiar place against a familiar foe. A win is all they need. They remember the last time they desperately needed a win and didn’t get it. That feeling is pretty familiar as well. But they never want to feel it that way again.  

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