Grant Salzano: With the Beanpot final tonight at 7:30 PM, we're pleased to be joined by Sean Hathaway for the Northeastern perspective on things. Sean is a contributor to Stanley Cup of Chowder and a Northeastern Alum.
For the third time in four years, BC and NU will face off in the final. The other year, BC and NU met in the first round.
The first question surrounding Northeastern right now is what on earth happened Friday night against UMass, in which Northeastern lost 3-0 at home to the lowly Minutemen. Classic trap game, or what?
Sean Hathaway: Thanks for having me. I think it's really easy to write this game off as a trap game given all the hype that comes with a Beanpot final. I'm not going to say it was, though. That game was pretty similar to the rest of Northeastern's games. The only difference is the shooting. Kevin Roy's lack of attempts was painfully obvious. He's their engine.
Joseph Gravellese: The circle of #NERDS who also follow college hockey have commented all year on Northeastern's unusually high shooting percentage and Clay Witt's save percentage boosting the Huskies to a great record despite being outshot in most games they play. You don't really need to understand any fancystats to look at the box score each week, see NU give up 40 shots, and wonder how they keep winning.
But at this point, it's well beyond "oh, they've been getting lucky for a month or so, they'll come back to earth." They've been doing it for a long time. What do you think about that as of now? Is NU's success still sustainable?
SH: I tabulate their five on five shot attempt share (corsi%) every game. So yeah, I'm well aware of all this and I'm very conscious of the (eventual) regression. NU went into Friday's game with a PDO of 104 which suggests they've been very lucky.
Obviously, a lot of that is Clay Witt. This is the first time he's ever gotten a chance to be The Guy so we don't know if this is his real form or just a hot streak. Call me a cynic, but I'm not convinced he's *this* good, but I do believe he's quality goaltender.
The shooting, meanwhile, has been about 11%, which is a little high as well. It's helped bail them out of games they didn't have business winning -- that and Clay Witt, of course. I don't think it can hold up, but I've been waiting for regression to kick in for quite some time and it hasn't. I'm not going to complain as a NU fan, of course.
GS: So much for no Fancystats(TM).
SH: One thing to note, when we speak of regression, we do so in the context of a 82 game season. College is much shorter, obviously.
GS: I have been on the NU train for a while, and I think we're starting to leave the realm of small sample size. I think this has more to do with Witt finding a groove than NU getting lucky. You can look at a guy like Johnny Gaudreau who has a ridiculous shot percentage and think "oh, he has to regress, there's no way he can keep shooting XX%" ... but that's just not the case.
A little different with goaltending, but still. My point stands.
JG: My reasoning for thinking Northeastern would suck this year is that "Clay Witt was someone who was behind RAWLINGS in a depth chart," so he must suck. So, not exactly scientific reasoning.
GS: Milner tho.
And Milner had the same kind of stretch of awesomeness to get us to a championship.
SH: I recall Milner getting benched and losing his job.
JG: Twice, in fact. In 2012, he recovered and romped to the title with a sub-2 GAA; in 2013, he did not.
SH: Not to toot my own horn, but I preferred him to Rawlings. He was hurt much of last year, but I thought he was more consistent than Rawlings.
JG: I would have preferred one of those street hockey cutout goalie things to Rawlings, so.
SH: Preaching to the choir.
JG: One other thing about NU that seems a little... off when you look at a stat sheet: They take the most penalties of any team in the league, *and* their penalty kill is poor, too. And yet it hasn't kept them from being a top team. Do you have any explanation for that or is it just another one of life's great mysteries?
You would think that would be a killer combination. BC takes a lot of penalties but is among the national leaders in penalty killing.
SH: Absolutely. You'd think that would be the case but it's not and I think it's simply a testament to how good they are five on five. Also Clay Witt. I don't have his save percentage on the PK handy, but I would venture to guess it's pretty good.
JG: They also score at a pretty good clip. I figured Northeastern would be pretty good offensively, though they've been better than I figured they'd be. They have a lot of good players though. Roy is "the engine," as you said, but they have a lot of talent up front -- Pimm, Szmatula, Saucerman etc. I think Grant and I both thought, pre-season, that NU would be a very good offensive team. We just both thought the other end would be a huge problem.
As someone who watches them regularly, do you have any insights on their offensive style to share? along with thoughts about why a lot of these same players are more productive this year than they were last year?
SH: Going in to friday's game, they were the #9 offense in the country. A lot of that is fueled by the influx of freshmen. Five of their top eight scorers are freshmen -- Szmatula, Stevens, Hedges, Aston-Reese and Benning. So that's part of it. Braden Pimm also recovered his form after a six goal season last year (he has 16 thus far). Kevin Roy, is still Kevin Roy. I think he's just enjoying not being the lone threat (no offense to Saponari or Karlsson).
One of the most fascinating things about all this to me is the absence of Cody Ferriero. He missed a few games, but he hasn't really produced at any point. It's very strange.
GS: Wow, 5 of 8 -- I didn't know that.
That would do it.
That's... kind of scary. Care to spare a few transfers as tradition dictates you should?
SH: If you add sophomores, Roy and Saucerman, it's seven of eight, Pimm being the only upperclassman.
I'm scouting the incoming recruits to pick out who's going to decommit. It's become an annual tradition here.
JG: Who's the early favorite?
SH: I think Cotton's the top recruit, so him, that seems to be how it works here.
JG: I'm sure UVM will be very excited.
SH: Fortunately this year, Szmatula's attempt to decommit didn't work out.
JG: Hm... hadn't heard about that. What was the deal there?
SH: Szmatula played his USHL hockey with Dubuque under Jim Montgomery. When Montgomery got the Denver job, Szmatula tried to bounce to join him. Madigan and NU refused to release him from his LOI because it wasn't a legitimate reason (Gaudreau had a coaching change, Gillies wasn't guaranteed the starting job when Rawlings decided to stay).
At the Friends of NU Hockey summer meeting, which happened during this saga, Madigan told us that it wasn't realistic to just follow a coach around and I think he's right. The NCAA board agreed and Szmatula was left with the choice of playing for NU or sitting out a year and transferring. As a 21-year-old, that wasn't particularly attractive to him. I think he made the right choice.
GS: I'm sure that didn't exactly endear him to the program. But things seemed to have worked out for him.
Is he expected to try to transfer again this year? Or does the same thing apply?
JG: Scoring a bunch of goals and being on a team that is in the top 10 will do that.
He'd still have to sit out a year if he transferred, I would think.
SH: I think that saga is over. I'd be more worried about him receiving pro offers. As a 21 year old, he's too old for the draft, but someone might like what he's doing. I don't anticipate this happening, but it's far more likely than him transferring in my eyes.
Building camaraderie with teammates is a part of that as well.
JG: No doubt. Related to the topics discussed above... what's the feeling on Madigan now? There was some serious blood boiling down on Huntington Ave last season. I didn't blame people who were pissed as the program really seemed to be on the right track for a while under Cronin. But now, things seem to be trending up again.
SH: Madigan has already surpassed Cronin's win total through three years. Granted, Cronin's first season included just three wins. Despite the success this season, I'm not sold on him just yet. Some of his tactics (e.g. time outs, power play personnel) I don't agree with and his attitude on being outshot (not caring) is frustrating.
I'd like to bring up the old adage "show me a good coach and I'll show you a good goaltender." I think that's applicable here.
I don't want to be wholly negative, though. I think Madigan's recruiting is fantastic and has me very optimistic about the program's future.
JG: Fair enough. From an outsider's perspective (but the perspective of someone who's gone to Matthews a lot since I was a kid and always keeps an eye on the program), I felt like they could have done better the year they made the hire. But you can't argue with the season they're having so far.
So let's cut to the chase, eh? What are you thinking about the game tonight?
SH: I like to not get caught up in the results of a single game, but that performance against UMass on Friday doesn't have me too hopeful about NU's chances. Granted, I was predicting a BC victory before that game, but as Joe Meloni pointed out, NU just couldn't skate with UMass. BC is pretty good in that department. I think that NU's defense is a little bit better than it was when these teams met in league play. Matt Benning, who I thought was terrible in that series, has become arguably NU's top defenseman. Then again, the Beanpot can get kind of crazy -- remember 2011? That being said, I don't see how BC doesn't win even if Clay Witt stops 60.
Do you guys see any sort of weakness in BC's game that NU could exploit? Asking for a friend.
JG: Ha. Well, they take a lot of penalties. So there's one.
SH: 91% PK is a weakness? Good lord.
Bodes well for NU.
JG: Beyond that, there haven't been many lately. It's been more of a some-strenghts-come-out-more-than-others. Earlier in the season, I would have said defensive breakdowns. Also, goaltending was questionable.
But over the past month the defense has tightened up and move up to #5 in the country. And Thatcher Demko has been excellent since moving into the #1 role.
SH: I was unsure about Demko myself, but he's been pretty darn good outside of that Holy Cross game.
JG: I don't know of any Holy Cross game...
but yeah, Demko has been the #1 star for BC in two of the past three games, at PC and against BU. I was a little nervous after BU last week because Penn State (WHAT?), Providence, and BU (WHAT?) were all tight, tough games where BC needed Demko to bail them out. But then the Eagles hung six on Merrimack and all was back to normal.
SH: If Monday is like past BC/NU matchups, it'll be wide open and BC is clearly better positioned to play that style.
JG: Honestly, I try my best to not be a honk but it's hard to pick out weaknesses for BC outside of the occasional defensive lapse, often caused by a very aggressive attack that usually pays off more often than not.
SH: It's one thing if it wasn't legitimate, but this team is solid...as usual.
JG: I'm slowly coming to the realization that this year's team, to this point, is looking like one of the very best in the York era. Long way to go, and they have a lot of stiff competition, but they look good.
With that said, it's hard not to get irrational thoughts like "BC can't possibly go this long on a winning streak" and "this is going to be NU's Super Bowl" etc etc etc so I am nervous about the game.
SH: Think they have a shot at the national title if they don't win Monday? I don't think BC or BU has ever won one without a Beanpot.
JG: They have not, but yes, they still have a shot at the title either way.
GS: Technically speaking *no* Beanpot team has won a national title without the Beanpot. Hard to realize that Harvard won one once.
Seems impossible now.
JG: And they beat Minnesota at that. WHAT?!
GS: Yeah, well, Minnesota doesn't have the best track record against eastern teams in the NCAA tournament.
SH: I'd mock them for glory days, but NU never really had any. The 80s were good but it's kinda lonely at the no national titles table.
JG: I do think it's probably going to be a great game. Probably very wide open, like you said, and if history in these games is any indication, probably very close. I think, given the amount of penalties both teams take and the amount of Hansens likely to be in the officiating crew, we could be in for a long game filled with special teams situations, which is kind of lame. But beyond that... I'm predicting entertainment.
GS: I'm about as high on BC as anyone right now but NU always plays us close in these games. As cliche as it sounds.
Other than The Countdown Game, of course.
But we don't speak of that.
JG: I stand by my prediction from last week which is I see no way BC doesn't get at least 40 shots, and given how lethal BC has been, Witt or no Witt I don't see them getting fewer than, say, 4 goals on those 40 shots. And therefore, I think the Eagles will win it. But.... in a squeaker.
GS: I am right along with Joe. BC wins pretty close, with BC getting 4-5 goals. Be interested in seeing if Demko can help make it a blowout for us.
SH: Now, it'd be pretty bad if we went through this and didn't talk about Fitzgerald. I keep tabs on him but you guys watch BC more closely than I do. Any thoughts on him?
JG: He's really talented, but obviously shows his youth and inexperience by disppearing from time to time. He's not (as I hoped he might be) one of those freshmen who bursts on to the scene at BC and makes you think "wow, this guy's going to the NHL." But he's got a great skillset. That snipe on the power play against BU last week was a good indication of that. It wasn't the first time that he became a great weapon on the power play by moving into space effectively... and then to finish it off with that top-shelf shot... that was nice.
GS: Fitzgerald reminds me of Arnold in the early years. Really good all-around skillset but doesn't really give you the 'Wow' factor, like Joe said.
SH: Do you think the formation of the Gaudreau-Arnold-Hayes line hurt him? He was point per game before it and he's like .75 per now. Am I reading too much into it?
I feel like his role has been all over the place -- on the wing, center, top six, third line, etc. Where does he best fit for BC?
JG: Couple things to tackle here:
1) Yes, not playing with Gaudreau or Hayes has hurt his production, as it would hurt anyone's. I could score a couple of goals on a line with Gaudreau.
2) He definitely has been better on the wing than at center. Since York moved him back to the wing after the holiday break, he's been getting back on to the score sheet.
SH: What do you see his role being next year? He's BC's top scorer outside of the top line. Will he be the guy when they leave?
GS: Gaudreau will be the guy next year.
JG: I think his BC future is probably best as a second line winger, probably? I mean, you could make the argument that his line is already BC's "second line," and he's top 5 on the team in scoring. As for him being on the wing... that might change as he gets more experience but that seems to suit him. Like I said, he seems to be really smart about moving into space off the puck.
But yeah, if Gaudreau goes, I wouldn't be surprised if Fitzgerald ends up on the first line... unless Eichel does the smart thing and decommits from BU and comes to BC. Then the Eichel, Tuch, Milano line from juniors can just move up and play at BC.
SH: Oh man. The outrage from BU fans would be legendary.
JG: Right? I'm sure you can't possibly imagine how aggravating it must be to see an elite, can't-miss, generational star decommit and go play for Jerry York.
You know what, that was uncalled for. I think it's about time to wrap this up.
SH: Kevin Roy isn't a bad consolation.
JG: That is true.
Speaking of consolations... who wins the BU Invitational at 4:30 tomorrow?
GS: BU has to, right?
JG: You would think. Harvard is the worst.
GS: Harvard did beat BU already this year.
SH: I'll go BU but I wouldn't be shocked to walk into the Garden and see 4-2 Harvard on the scoreboard.
JG: Well now that the important stuff is covered...
Thanks for joining us and I look forward to a great game.
SH: Thanks for having me. Win or lose, the Beanpot is always fun.
JG: Always. Especially when BU can't win it.