Column: Husky hibernation is history: These dogs are for real

Column: Husky hibernation is history: These dogs are for real

Have you woken up yet?

Well, do us all a favor and set your alarm clock next time. The men’s hockey team is wide awake, and it isn’t falling back to sleep anytime soon.

Sure, hibernation seemed enticing. There would, after all, be no stress or difficulty in the thick of the woods – away from the glaring eyes of the menacing predators in the form of Chestnut Hill-born Eagles, Commonwealth Avenue-residing Terriers and, as of late, Durham, N.H.-raised Wildcats.

But not for the 2006-07 Husky pack. They’re no longer scared, and more importantly, they’re no longer following the familiar storylines that have haunted them and disrupted their hunting season in the past.

Last year’s winter seemed endless. There were only three victories, and weeks upon weeks of frustration and desperation. Much was documented in these pages of how trying and repetitive the losses and months became.

Now that seems like years ago. Head coach Greg Cronin has led his unsung team back into relevance – with the best example this past Friday night in a little central Maine town called Orono.

The 6-1 victory that Northeastern claimed over the No. 6 Maine team is, without a doubt, one of the most significant wins in years.

Putting aside for a moment the team’s 2-1 overtime loss the next night: the Huskies traveled to one of the nation’s most intimidating home rinks – Alfond Arena – and changed history in a single night.

Prior to the game, the Huskies hadn’t won at Maine since Feb. 5, 1998, and it was the first time Northeastern had scored six goals in a game against the Black Bears since Dec. 4, 1999.

For those pointing to the early-season surprises the Huskies seem to always provide in recent years – a 3-2 win over then-No. 6 Michigan in October and a 4-2 victory over then-No. 1 Michigan in 2004 – they are just that: early-season shockers. They fade into irrelevance and are often quickly forgotten.

Not this win, though. This one came more than halfway through the year and emphasized that the Huskies are learning how to win in different circumstances and with different forms of pressure.

It all points to one thing and one thing alone: the seemingly endless downward spiral that accompanied Cronin’s one-plus years behind the Northeastern bench has been emphatically reversed.

First thing’s first: the Huskies are winning. Seems hard to believe, but Northeastern lost just twice in January – a Jan. 13 3-0 shutout to Vermont and Saturday’s extra-period loss. Including those losses, the Huskies have followed a determined, successful pattern since Christmas in which they have gone 5-3-2.

The idea has been simple: grind, battle and win. By comparison, last year’s mantra was different. It was grind, battle and pray.

At the start of the month, Northeastern went into overtime in three straight games – a familiar tune the program seems to always sing when it plays its very best. It defeated No. 7 BC, 3-2, and then tied No. 13 BU, 0-0, and Vermont, 2-2. Adding to the winning record were two expected victories against the cellar-dwelling UMass-Lowell River Hawks, 6-2 and 2-1.

At 9-12-4 (6-10-4 Hockey East), Northeastern is in a comfortable seventh spot in the 10-team conference. With 16 points, the Huskies are five points ahead of the final current playoff team, Providence.

It’s remarkable, really, what a season like 2005-06 can do to you. You start to see where Cronin was coming from when he said the Huskies were inches from a handful of victories. His comments about his team’s lack of puck-luck seem to ring even truer now.

Although he’s getting more breaks this year, he may not have even needed them so far. Why? Because Cronin has proven he can recruit here on Huntington Avenue.

Are you familiar with Brad Thiessen yet? The freshman from Aldergrove, Canada, has played in all but three games and logged 1345:20 minutes of ice time. In the midst of that intimidating ice time against the best, Thiessen has been nothing short of remarkable.

Northeastern goaltenders are regularly pounded and attacked by the swift, elite skaters of BC, BU and UNH, to name a few. But Thiessen has been a confident, quickly adaptable goaltender in his own right. He’s made the transition into the prestigious Hockey East look about as easy as it can get. His latest accomplishment was a 60-save (on 63 shots) weekend in Maine, putting his goals-against-average at 2.54 and save percentage at .917.

And how about Cronin’s offense? The coach arrived at Matthews Arena and promised to establish a new identity. He’s done that, as his selection of Chad Costello (10-10-20) leads the team in points, while other hard-working recruits like Kyle Kraemer (5-9-14), Dennis McCauley (5-8-13) and Joe Vitale (5-7-12) aren’t far behind.

Cronin was given time, even if last year was at times impossible to get through. And now, as we’ve witnessed a continued change in culture and atmosphere on St. Botolph Street, Cronin and his Huskies are prepared to continue proving us wrong.

It’s fortunate you’ve woken up in time. The Huskies, now truly alert, have been more victorious than not lately in the New England wild.

Now they seem ready to pull off the all-nighter of all-nighters.

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

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