Back in a big way

Back in a big way

In the chaotic frenzy of the moment – as his pent-up frustration pours out, adrenaline pumps uncontrollably and aggressive anger is used wisely – Joe Vitale is really only looking for some space.

The men’s hockey sophomore forward lives up to his gunslinging name immediately. He approaches the corner boards and puts up his usual tough fight for the puck. But to create the pass he so desperately seeks, he needs some room on the ice.

Too bad he’s not team captain Mike Morris.

“You can automatically sense it,” Vitale said of Morris. “Kids are going to shy away from a check on him. There’s a general word, ‘Mike Morris is back in the lineup tonight.’ They almost give him space because they respect him so much.”

Vitale, the fan favorite who has quickly gained respectability around Hockey East, was – like the majority of last year’s patchwork, underachieving offense – hoping for something better this year on Huntington Avenue.

“It’s funny, after a year like last year, we almost approached it as if ‘things cannot get any worse,'” Vitale said. “You saw Morris in the locker room last year, but he wasn’t in uniform and it was hard for him to get through to a lot of kids. Now, this year, with him suiting up and his overall presence on the ice, I can say he’s one of the best captains I’ve ever played under. Kids want to play for him.”

Morris’s return, much like his most recent play this weekend at Michigan (two goals, one assist on Friday; one assist on Saturday), has been exactly what the Huskies’ offense needed. To try to put into words the frustrations of last year’s campaign for Northeastern would be difficult. Even more challenging, however, would be explaining the current relief surrounding the team.

“Just having him out there, for all of the kids, there’s a confidence factor,” Vitale said. “Just knowing that Mike Morris is in our lineup, with all of the great things he’s done. He’s just one of those players that with him being out there, everyone feels safe. Whenever things are getting hazy or we’re protecting a lead, we can all take a deep breath when he’s out there because we know we’ll be ok for the next 45 seconds.”

Morris, a 2002 NHL first-round draft pick (No. 27 overall, San Jose Sharks) was a dynamic force in his first three seasons as a Husky, compiling goal scorer’s numbers (21, 30, 39 points, respectively) as a center and producing an unforgettable brand of flashy play under former coach Bruce Crowder.

But in June of 2005, Morris, who in the previous November had missed three weeks due to a concussion suffered against Maine, was involved in a car accident near the Northeastern campus that exacerbated his previous injury.

That left current head coach Greg Cronin without an offensive identity for his 2005-06 team, which as a ragtag group battled through the miseries of a 3-24-7 season and forced Cronin to put current third and fourth line players at the top of his line sheet.

Fast forward to a month ago and Cronin, albeit with a group of his own offensive recruits ready to step in for the current campaign, was in a similar position.

“I prepared for the year as if he wasn’t going to be back,” Cronin said. “But I guess ignorance is bliss because I didn’t know what he represented as a player. I eased him into training camp and as he started to become more confident, I could see the impact he was going to have on the ice.”

The impact, as determined by Cronin after a split with No. 6 Michigan, can now be explained clearly.

“Michigan has some terrific players; four of their top six forwards are prime-time NHL candidates,” Cronin said. “But Morris, I felt, was the best player on the ice.”

After going four full games with just a single point (an assist in the Huskies 4-3 loss to Boston College), Morris was not producing. Adapting to the ebb and flow of the Hockey East after 16 months out of the spotlight, Morris needed some time. After this past weekend, it is now clear he’s back.

“It felt good, it felt how I used to feel,” Morris said of his two goals. “It’s tough if you’re not scoring. It’s ok to just keep trying to work hard, to play defense and do the little things but if you’re losing games there’s an added pressure to step it up.”

Cronin, who spent an entire calendar year preaching the merits of a functioning power play and penalty kill, was, in his own words, almost working a “futile” message. With the presence of Morris, however, things have suddenly and drastically changed.

“If a guy doesn’t have the ability to physically execute what you’re trying to promote, it’s almost an exercise of futility,” Cronin said. “Then Morris can go out and adjust to whatever tactical missions there are in your game plan and everybody can see it.”

In Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Wolverines in overtime, Cronin wanted to make something clear.

“I’m not exaggerating, every single power play we had that night, all nine of them, honest to God, every single time we could have scored,” he said, calling Morris a “dominant” player in both games. “I’d heard so many things about him and saw little flashes of it, but never saw it sustained over an entire game until this past weekend. Any time you have a player like that and the younger guys can see it, it’s a great physical education.”

As the season progresses, there is an increasing sense that depth at the forward position will play a big role in the team’s fortunes. At the very least, Vitale is comforted to know the biggest piece of that strength position is off and running.

“It’s hard to explain,” Vitale said. “There’s nothing like scoring a goal. What it does to you mentally – when you get a goal, it seems like everything else is coming into play. For Morris, he got the monkey off his back and the second one came easy. Now that it’s coming back into the rhythm in his game, scoring goals, the whole process of it, it’s going to get a lot easier for him going on out. He’s a goal scorer. It’s not ‘if’ he’ll keep scoring, it’s ‘when.'”

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