Men’s Hockey: Back on the ice

Men’s Hockey: Back on the ice

By Matt Nielsen

With veteran leadership and experienced sophomores the men’s hockey team starts the 2006-07 season with what was missing in 2005

Hockey season is officially underway after last week’s Hockey East Media Day at TD Banknorth Garden. The national and Hockey East polls were released, and players and coaches were chomping at the bit, ready to take to the ice. The Northeastern men’s hockey team has reason to feel good about its chances, despite being voted eighth in the Hockey East Coaches Poll.

“We don’t really pay any attention to that stuff,” said senior forward Yale Lewis. “We’ll prove it on the ice.”

After a difficult 2005-06 campaign (3-24-7, 3-17-7), the Huskies are ready to fight their way back into contention, led by players like Lewis, senior forward Mike Morris, senior defenseman Steve Birnstill and senior goaltender Adam Geragosian.

The Huskies struggled to establish any offensive rhythm throughout last season, averaging less than two goals per game. Of the Hockey East schools, only Merrimack had a harder time finding the back of the net.

Injuries played a vital role in Northeastern’s offensive woes. Morris, an All-Hockey East second team selection for the 2004-05 season and a first-round NHL draft pick, was compelled to take a redshirt after an off-season car accident aggravated a concussion he suffered the previous season. Morris was on the cusp of a breakout season after leading the Huskies in 2004-05 with 39 points, including 19 goals scored.

“That’s 40 points, right there,” Lewis said.

Lewis, a big, bruising forward, missed some time due to injuries as well, forcing head coach Greg Cronin to rely even more on his young players. With the veteran players hurt, others stepped up to shoulder the load. As a sophomore forward Jimmy Russo led the Huskies in scoring (5-13-18), including a stretch during the Huskies’ first 17 games in which he tallied 15 points, effectively stabilizing an injured group of forwards.

With Morris and others hurting, last year’s freshmen were asked to carry the greatest burden. Forwards Joe Vitale (8-8-16) and Ryan Ginand (10-6-16) were brilliant at times, and forward Dennis McCauley (7-7-14) came on strong at the end of the season, racking up nine points in the team’s final nine games.

Much like last season, Cronin has recruited a talented group of freshmen to add to his depth on offense. Chad Costello scored 77 points in only 59 games for the Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League (USHL) last season, setting a club record. Chris Donovan put up 69 points in 61 games last season in the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL), including 35 goals. Kyle Kraemer tallied 68 points in a mere 51 games for the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League during 2005-2006. These freshmen, among other talented recruits, are the building blocks of what will be a high-scoring attack for years to come.

This season, the Huskies will look to their young forwards to keep the pressure on opponent defenses and produce goals in key situations. Add to that a healthy Morris and Lewis, the leadership of senior forward Bryan Esner – who hasn’t missed a game in the last two seasons – and Northeastern suddenly becomes a very dangerous offensive threat.

Defensively, the Huskies were hampered by more than just a lack of depth last season, something Cronin has addressed with the signing of freshmen David Strathman (10 power-play goals with Cedar Rapids of the USHL last season) and Jim Driscoll (49 assists for the Boston Jr. Bruins of the EJHL). With the top offensive threats out of Northeastern’s lineup, opponents were able to keep pressure on NU’s defensemen and keep the puck on the Huskies’ end of the ice for extended periods of play. Still, the Huskies performed well with their young group of defensemen, and will benefit greatly from a healthy and talented offense this season.

Key contributors on defense will include many sophomores, whose extended ice time as freshmen has yielded the most valuable asset as a defenseman – experience.

“The most difficult position to play as a freshman in this conference is defenseman,” Cronin said. “These guys were really thrown into the fire last year.”

However, NU’s biggest defensive weapon this season will once again be senior Steve Birnstill. Named team MVP last season, he led the Huskies in assists (14) and was a stabilizing force all season for a young defense. Birnstill will try to stay healthy this season after missing six games last season due to a shoulder injury. The only other veteran on the defensive squad is senior Brian Deeth, who will also provide veteran leadership.

Geragosian will start in goal again this season for the Huskies. The netminder was hurt by the same things the defense was last season: The lack of an NU offensive attack meant Geragosian was under constant pressure, and a young defense was only able to pick up some of the slack in front of him. Look for a breakout year from Geragosian. Backing him will be sophomore Jake Thaler, who got a few looks last season and could contend for a starting role, and freshman Brad Thiessen, who ranked third in save percentage (.922) last season in the British Columbia Hockey League.

The Huskies open the season Oct. 10 at Boston College at 7 p.m., followed by a tough stretch that includes games at Boston University, at Vermont and two games at Michigan.

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