is making a run at the Hockey East championship.
And, Joe Vitale is leading the way.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Penguins seventh-round draft choice (195th overall) has spearheaded the No. 7-ranked Huskies’ surge this season. Vitale, a junior captain, has helped guide the team to the top of the Hockey East standings with a 7-3-1 record in 11 conference games.
“It’s a little shocking and alarming to some outsiders when you look at the standings,” Vitale said. “I don’t think we’ve surprised ourselves this year. Right at the beginning, we knew we had something special and we’re kind of going with it right now.”
The shock over Northeastern’s hot start stems from the team’s finish near the bottom of the conference standings the past few seasons. That trend is in reverse under head coach Greg Cronin, who took over in 2005. The Huskies went 3-17-7 in conference play in 2005-06 and 9-15-5 last season.
“We haven’t changed much. We had a big freshman class that’s come in, but we have the same coaches and the same style. It’s just a matter of it taking time,” Vitale said. “Greg Cronin came in a couple of years ago and he wanted to rebuild the program. It doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time. But, he’s stuck to the game plan well and it’s just a matter of the timing going our way and we’re getting the bounces we’ve been looking for the past couple of years.”
Cronin and his Huskies received a boost when former Penguins player Shawn McEachern joined the coaching staff halfway through last season.
“Ever since Shawn came in last year at Christmas-time, he’s been a major catalyst of all our success,” Vitale said. “He kind of re-invented our systems. He’s a guy that the kids can look up to. He’s been there and kids ask him questions all the time and he’s always taking kids aside and working with them. You couldn’t ask for a better guy to have in the locker room. He’s a great coach and a great person. He’s been there for me and helped me through all this. He’s been a god-send.”
Vitale led Northeastern in scoring at the start of the New Year with 18 points (6+12) through 16 games even though he’s been skating on a line with a pair of freshmen in Wade MacLeod and Tyler McNeely. That puts Vitale, already a three-time Hockey East Player of the Week (including the week of Jan. 7), well ahead of the pace he had in his first two seasons on the team when he finished with 16 points his freshman and sophomore years.
“I really got at challenging myself this summer, not so much with the physical side of things, but I really tried to get after the mental side of the game,” Vitale said. “My coach gave me a few books to read and I really started to work on my mental game. I think that’s helped out a lot. Also, my linemates this year are just phenomenal athletes and I am just surrounded by great, great performers. I have to give most of the credit to those guys; they really outdo themselves.”
Vitale benefited from the Penguins’ rookie camp this summer. He enjoyed meeting and competing against the organization’s top prospects.
“To be invited to a camp like that gives you a little confidence as a player. That definitely did help me,” he said. “You get to know some of the people who are in the system as well and you get to build some relationships. It was a fun week and I look forward to hopefully being invited back in 2008.”
Vitale excels off the ice, too. The journalism major was named to the Hockey East All-Academic Team last season.
“It’s great I really enjoy it. I enjoy college and representing a team, a program and a university. It’s definitely a huge adjustment when you come in as a freshman to get acclimated as to what is going on. But, it’s been great,” he said. “You communicate with your professors and they understand you have a busy schedule and they work with you. But, journalism at Northeastern, especially in the city of Boston, where there’s such a buzz around the city, is great. It’s a great place to learn journalism and I really enjoy all my courses. So, it’s been going pretty well so far.”
After their hot start, the Huskies were not looking forward to the winter break.
“You hope that you didn’t lose anything over break. There’s only so much you can do, as far as working out and trying to get as much ice as you can,” Vitale said. “I think most guys took about four or five days off and enjoyed themselves and relaxed. But, everyone started to get back into skating again and getting back to work in our workout program that we’re staying committed to. Hopefully, we can just keep it going.”
Northeastern picked up where it left off in capturing the Badger Hockey Showdown title at Wisconsin. Northeastern beat Bowling Green, 4-3, in the opening game and downed Colgate, 2-1, to claim the title. It was the program’s first tournament win since it won the RPI Holiday Tournament in 2003.
The team beat Maine, 7-3, on Jan. 4, which extended the Huskies’ unbeaten steak to a nation-leading 11 games (9-0-2), which is Northeastern’s longest since a 12-game winning streak in the 1980-81 season.
However, Vitale and his teammates are hungry for more.
“From the beginning of the year, we wanted to make the Hockey East tournament and the NCAA tournament and win the Hockey East, which is looking like a possibility now,” he said. “Anything could happen, though. We try to not look too far ahead. We just want to make a name for ourselves in the NCAA tournament, which for now we have to take one game at a time because it will all pan out in the end.”