BostonBruins.com -- College hockey’s Beanpot has a special place in Boston.
Revolving around Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern, the stage is set at the home of the Bruins, with teams vying for the Beanpot title on TD Garden ice.
No matter where a team sits in their conference standings heading in early February, the Beanpot places the student-athletes in a high-pressure situation, with an often sold out crowd.
In its 62nd year, Bruins prospects Ryan Fitzgerald and Matt Benning both had the chance to suit up in their first Beanpot Final as freshmen for their respective teams, Boston College and Northeastern.
A 2013 draft pick of the Bruins (fourth round, 120th overall), Fitzgerald and his BC Eagles wound up on top, thanks to a third-period surge, for the 4-1 win. Benning, a 2012 selection (sixth round, 175th overall) and his Huskies had to settle for second, in a hard-fought battle on the ice surface sporting the Spoked-B at center ice.
Aside from the outcome, the game subtly showcased how far each prospect had come since his draft day, and the development that was taking place in the Bruins’ backyard.
“I have seen some really encouraging signs of progress for both Ryan and Matt, and it was fun to see them square off in the Beanpot Final,” said Bruins Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney. “It should make for a great rivalry as they move through their college years.”
The rivalry will be notched up next year, with both players further developing into roles on their teams, but also with the addition of two more Boston prospects - a healthy Matt Grzelcyk hopefully in the BU lineup (out for the season after shoulder surgery) and Wiley Sherman, a 2013 draft pick who will be beginning at Harvard in the Fall.
“Definitely something special,” said Fitzgerald following the game. “Seeing the seniors win four in a row, it just gives you something to look forward to, and this being my first one, hopefully it’s one of many.”
The forward has taken on a growing role as a freshman at BC, and through 29 games, he’s fourth on the team in both goals (9) and points (23).
“There’s a lot freshman who have pretty big roles. When they call on us, we just try to do our job, do it right, so it’s been fun,” he said.
“Ryan has stepped in and consistently contributed to a very deep and talented BC team that is currently the No. 1 ranked team in college hockey,” said Sweeney. “He has seen playing time on all of the top three lines and he has played both center and left wing, which further validates his versatility and hockey sense as a player.”
Fitzgerald is utilized in all situations on the ice, and as Sweeney describes it, his “200-foot commitment to the details of the game has earned the trust of this coaches.”
“One thing he’s probably taught me a lot about is defense,” said Fitzgerald, on the influence of Head Coach Jerry York. “So I’m getting better at it.”
He also knows that’s a strong emphasis for the Black & Gold.
“They emphasize a lot on defense and being good in all zones, and it’s something I pride myself on now, so it’s been a good development. And that’s probably the area I have to focus on the most,” he said.
Since the NHL Draft in June and Development Camp in July, Fitzgerald said he’s easily become much stronger, while being more aware of his opponent’s strength and how to pick his battles.
“We see Ryan continuing to get stronger in college and developing a more explosive first two steps as a skater,” said Sweeney, who often gives pointers and positive feedback to the prospects.
Fitzgerald takes those pointers to heart. “I’m always listening,” he said.
“Ryan’s natural instincts as a player are tremendous and his will to compete and play with a ‘nasty edge’ at times will continue to serve him well as he moves along his college career.”
Similarly, Fitzgerald’s fellow prospect and college hockey rival, defenseman Matt Benning, has an Bruins-style edge to him as well.
In his freshman season with the Huskies, he too has developed a larger role for himself on his team. So much so, that when the team’s Captain, Josh Manson, was in the penalty box early in the Beanpot semifinal game, Benning was relied upon to pick up more minutes.
“Matt has become one of the anchors on defense for a real up and coming NU team,” said Sweeney. “He plays in all situations and is showing increased confidence and poise with each game.”
“His work off the ice, and in particular with regards to his conditioning, has allowed him to step in and be a very valuable player at the Division 1 college level as a freshman. Matt has great hockey sense and he plays a committed game on both sides of the play.”
Through 29 games this season with Northeastern, Benning has three goals and 10 points, with two of those three tallies coming on the power play.
He’s been labeled a smart, puck-moving defenseman, but also has a toughness to his play that raises his battle level - a “quiet toughness,” as his Head Coach Jim Madigan has said.
“I think Coach Madigan reference to Matt’s ‘quiet toughness’ is a real compliment to his character because Matt defends with a high compete level,” said Sweeney. “But he also shows courage while retrieving pucks as he makes plays while under pressure, and often takes a hit to make the correct play on the breakout.”
Even in one game - the Beanpot Final - one could see his calm demeanor protecting his crease and high level of battling along the boards.
“Matt is continuing to work on his overall foot speed and pivots but he has made an impressive transition to the college game,” added Sweeney. “His offensive production should continue to improve as well because he sees plenty of power play time and with increased familiarity and confidence, he will look to use his shot more effectively.”
Both Fitzgerald and Benning are young in their college careers, and within the Bruins organization, but they’ll only continue to improve, and showcase that development, with big stages like the Beanpot.