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NU Huskies No. 1 surprise in NCAA play

by Bob Snow

Coach Greg Cronin's Huskies are on a 6-0-2 run, they haven't lost a league game since November 2.
They are on the verge of cracking the top-10 teams in all the national media polls. In an informal poll, however, rank Northeastern University the No. 1 surprise team at the NCAA season's midpoint.

Their home ice at Mathews Arena lies in the shadows of Fenway Park and the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Northeastern's current hold on first place in Hockey East has league powers like New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University and Maine positioned in their shadows.

"It's a slippery slope we live on in Hockey East," said third-year coach Greg Cronin. "If you slip, you could end up losing any night or end up in last place."

Northeastern never has won a Hockey East regular-season title.

At 7-4-2 (6-3-1 Hockey East), Cronin's Huskies are a young lot, with a lot less losing of late, led by a contingent of 10 sophomores and nine freshmen.

"Some nights," said Cronin last month after his team took its first season series in 20 years from UNH, "we don't dress any seniors."

Northeastern is on a 6-0-2 run and undefeated on the road. They haven't lost a league game since Nov. 2.

"We just focus on getting better every game," said the former AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers bench boss. "I know that's a cliché, but I mean it sincerely. No serendipity stuff."

No luck and chance, indeed, for this year's team, historically referenced as the "Huntington Hounds" from Huntington Avenue, where NHLers like Jim Fahey, Dan McGillis and Chris Nilan learned their trade.

The 19 underclassmen hail from around the corner in Arlington, Mass. (Ryan Maguire) to Tempe, Ariz. (David Stratham) to Burnaby, B.C. (Tyler McNeely).

"We've got a nice dynamic," said Cronin, "and they all move the puck pretty well. The key thing is they play well as units."

NU's heart-and-soul combo is junior captain and leading scorer Joe Vitale, and senior captain Jimmy Russo.

What's been the key to NU's success this season?

"Anybody who has a true knowledge about hockey," said Cronin, "will tell you the rhythm of your team offensively starts with your defense. Our defensemen have handled that very well in breakouts and the flow up ice."

That unit includes juniors Denis Chisolm and Louis Liotti, sophomores Strathman and Jim Driscoll, and freshman Drew Muench.

"Anytime you go into a hostile environment against a team ranked top-five in the country, they'll come out gunning," said Cronin after the 4-1 win at UNH on Nov. 16.

A week later, the Huskies went into BC's hostile environment and took two more league points, 4-3, with Russo netting the overtime winner.

Junior captain and leading scorer, Joe Vitale, makes up a big chunk of Northeastern's heart-and-soul.

Boston College played for the national championship in 2006 and 2007.

"Our goaltending was outstanding, our (penalty kill) was outstanding, and the (power play) chipped in," Cronin said. "When your goalie is good, it stabilizes the whole team, a real positive ripple effect down the bench. It also increases your pace and makes you less fearful to make mistakes."

Enter sophomore goalie Brad Thiessen as the other key. Playing in 13 of NU's 14 games so far, Thiessen has a 2.40 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Big-game play has become his staple.

"Keep working at it and working at it," Thiessen said. "Some nights you have to carry the load."

He's been carrying the load for two seasons running. Last year, the undrafted Thiessen logged 33 games with a final tally of 11-17-5, including a plethora of one-goal losses, all adding up to a final 2.48 GAA.

"The defense has been solid with good shot blockers," Thiessen said. "After the first few games of this year, we paid more attention to details on defense – clearing rebounds and moving guys away from the net. If we keep all of us going and pay attention to details, we'll be a tough team to beat. That's all we're looking for.

"Greg's always on us for the little things, wants us to do our best. Last year we worked just as hard, but maybe not as smart. His purpose is to get us to be smarter."

Those evolving Northeastern smarts assure first place in Hockey East until league play resumes in early January.

"It's nice to be in first place, be the front runner for a change," Thiessen said.

At this pace, the Huskies are legitimate contenders for their first Beanpot and league tournament title since 1988, and their first NCAA post-season appearance since 1994, when national champion Lake Superior State ousted NU 6-5 in overtime.

"Our offense in general needs to be improved," said Cronin of the major focus the second half. "We're not counting points – just trying to get better every game. It's a nice thing to be getting some buzz and some national recognition."

On Campus Clips -- Xcel Energy Center and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association recently announced five-game ticket packages for the 2008 Red Baron WCHA Final Five, to be held March 20-22 at Xcel Energy Center, now are on sale. Tickets can be purchased at the Xcel Energy Center Box Office or at ...The four Division I leaders in average attendance thus far are all WCHA programs: Wisconsin, 11,997; North Dakota, 11,760; Minnesota, 9,830; Colorado College, 7,209. ... Rink capacity attendance leaders are: New Hampshire and St. Cloud State at 104 percent, and North Dakota and RIT at 101 percent. ... University of Michigan senior forward Kevin Porter, who powered the Wolverines to an 8-1-0 record and their longest in-season winning streak in 16 years, is the Hockey Commissioners' Association National Division I Player of the Month for November. ... College hockey lost a good one with the recent passing of 39-year-old Northeastern University alum Jon Barkan. One of the highlights of every Frozen Four was the "Barkan Bash," a reunion of veteran scribes, team and league hotshots, and anybody in between with a love for the sport, hosted by Jon. It made each national championship event a more memorable experience. Jon's humor, generosity and passion for the frozen sheet will be deeply missed.'s Top 10 1) Michigan (16-2-0) 2) Miami (14-2-0) 3) Colorado College (10-4-0) 4) Denver (12-4-0) 5) Michigan State (12-3-2) 6) Notre Dame (16-4-0) 7) North Dakota (8-6-1) 8) Clarkson (10-5-0) 9) UMass (7-3-5) 10) Northeastern (7-4-2)

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