Column: Clear view ahead

Column: Clear view ahead

It was dark, and he couldn’t see.

He was being hit, and it hurt.

His team was losing at record pace, and it wasn’t pleasant.

“I felt blindfolded in an area where I didn’t know where I was walking,” he said. “I was getting walloped everywhere, whether it was administrative things, recruiting issues or academic issues. Time management was a thing that literally blew up in my face last year.”

But it’s a new year for head coach Greg Cronin and his Northeastern men’s hockey team. Even before the puck drops Tuesday at Boston College (7 p.m.), the second-year coach can already see a little bit better.

“Night and day,” Cronin said of the contrasting atmospheres of his rookie and sophomore years on Huntington Avenue. “I feel a lot more comfortable and I think that’ll translate to a lot more efficiency from my end and the way I manage the program.”

Why don’t you try being Greg Cronin, circa October 2005. Your team’s most important offensive threat, a player capable of providing an immense percentage of a team’s scoring production and arguably one of the nation’s top forwards, Mike Morris, is out and not coming back anytime soon.

A group of offensive veterans – Joe Santilli, Yale Lewis and Ray Ortiz – are out as well, leaving your forward lines in disarray. Defensively, you’ve got two veterans (Chuck Tomes and Steve Birnstill) and a bunch of newcomers. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation’s swift, versatile forwards are happily ready to pounce on the unproven freshmen.

And oh yeah, you don’t have a No. 1 goaltender.

“Before I even got on the ice to run a practice, I had lost Morris, Lewis, Ortiz and Santilli to injuries,” Cronin said. “They were out of the picture right out of training camp. So our freshmen were pushed into the lineup out of necessity. This year, everybody is back and healthy.”

The task was close to impossible – laughable, even. The offensive lines were experimental at best, led by freshmen and underachieving veterans. The opposition – such as national threats Boston College, Boston University and New Hampshire – were blissfully content to play a feisty Husky squad, always confident they could pull it out at the end. Scoring production was nearly nonexistent at times. Jimmy Russo, a perfectly capable forward, was the team’s leader in points at the end of the year with an everyday 18 points.

It wasn’t pretty.

However, this year there will be a world of difference in the team’s lines and overall depth. Every forward who was out with an injury is back, and the same impact freshmen who were forced into No. 1 and No. 2 roles – Joe Vitale and Ryan Ginand – can happily accept sidekick roles. Freshman Chad Costello, the USHL’s 2005-06 leading scorer (32-45-77) can come in and add to the production – without being relied upon too heavily.

There’s an air of harmony, and smiles abound at a hopeful Matthews Arena.

“Everyone’s moving fast,” Birnstill said of captains’ practice. “The freshmen that came in are adding a lot of depth. We have a third and fourth line now that can play with other third and fourth lines in Hockey East. I think that’s the biggest thing. I don’t think we had that last year. We do now.”

Morris, who boasts star power and NHL first-round draft selection status, had 39 points for the Huskies in the 2004-05 season alongside HE scoring leader Jason Guerriero. With Morris out last season Husky fans were left nostalgic about how scoring threats existed and how power plays and penalty kills functioned.

“Offensively, the guys are a little more creative and comfortable,” Morris said. “The goals are going to come. I think we’ll do a better job of generating chances and scoring opportunities.”

Defensively, there’s no questioning Birnstill. Called a “household name” in the league by Cronin, he’ll anchor the blue line with a group of sophomores that eventually fought off the pressures of last season.

And between the pipes, while Adam Geragosian was questionable at times, there’s no denying his inner talent and his ability to remain resolute in an unnervingly talented conference. Newcomer Brad Thiessen will receive plenty of playing time and is capable of taking the No. 1 spot.

“There’s no question that there’s one thing that comes out of that,” Cronin said of the team’s losing ways. “You go through that pain of losing last year and being so close every night. The younger guys came out of it with some credibility and substance. And they came out of that experience – even with a bad record – kind of empowered by what they went through. It gives them a sense of confidence that they went through the worst and now it’s up to them to try and change their fate.”

And now that’s he no longer blindfolded, perhaps Cronin’s fate can change, too.

– Jeff Powalisz can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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