Seniors lead by example despite injuries

By Matt Nielsen

The Huskies have been playing well lately and appear to be in good post-season shape, but the reasons for their recent success vary depending on who you ask.

Development of the talented freshman class, team unity and key additions to the coaching staff have all helped the Huskies turn it on since Christmas. But perhaps the most important factor in the team’s turnaround is the returning health of its senior leadership.

Senior defenseman and assistant captain Steve Birnstill missed most of December with a shoulder injury, robbing the team of one of the most talented defensemen in the Hockey East and his experience and presence on the ice. To make matters worse, senior forward and team captain Mike Morris missed significant time shortly after Birnstill’s injury due to an emergency appendectomy in mid-December.

“All of us have so much respect for those guys,” said sophomore forward and assistant captain Joe Vitale. “Guys give it all they have – go out and lay their bodies on the line for them. I hope that’s how I’m treated when I’m a senior. That’s what I can only hope to accomplish.”

The underclassmen attempted to rise to the challenge in the seniors’ absence, but the team struggled. Since the two have returned to the lineup, the Huskies have been as good as any team in Hockey East.

In the four games Birnstill missed due to his shoulder injury, Nov. 25 through Dec. 9, NU played to a 2-2 record with their two wins coming over Hockey East bottom-feeder Merrimack. The team suffered defensively, allowing too many quality scoring chances. Freshman goaltender Brad Thiessen allowed 2.77 goals per game in that span, stopping 91.4 percent of the shots he faced.

Since Birnstill’s return Dec. 29, the Huskies are 5-3-2 against quality competition. With Birnstill breaking up centering passes and controlling the penalty-killing unit, Thiessen’s numbers have skyrocketed. His goals against average since Birnstill’s return has dropped by one-third to 2.43, and his save percentage has improved to .920. Thiessen has been named Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week twice since Christmas.

In the same way Birnstill’s absence hurt NU’s ability to stop opposing offense, Morris’ absence limited their ability to score goals of their own. The team went 3-3-2 without Morris, scoring only 14 goals in six games. The team’s leading scorer and Morris’s linemate, freshman Chad Costello, failed to record a single goal or assist in those six games. The night Morris returned, Jan. 19 at UMass-Lowell, Costello and Morris each tallied four points in a 6-2 rout of the River Hawks. Costello has had four goals and three assists in the four games since Morris’s return, and the team has scored 15 times in that span, going 3-1.

While the impact of having both Birnstill and Morris on the ice is clear and statistically significant, their impact off the ice is equally impressive.

“I lucked out,” Morris said. “I’m part of a big senior class and a great group of guys. The responsibility isn’t all on me. It’s a group effort leading this team.”

To Birnstill, it’s all about confidence.

“I try to make sure the guys understand that we’re a good team,” he said. “We know we can win, and that we should win.”

Birnstill and Morris have each played more than 100 games at Northeastern, and made immediate impressions upon arrival.

As a freshman during the 2003-2004 season, Birnstill played in 32 games. Though not known for his goal-scoring, his first collegiate goal was the deciding factor in a 3-2 win at Massachusetts, March 6, 2004.

As a sophomore, Birnstill was third on the team in assists with 17, and dressed for all 38 team games. Last year he was one of the few bright spots on a team that won just three games. He led the team in assists despite missing six games. This year has been no different for Birnstill. Even with the time he missed, he’s first on the team in assists with 12, and has been a dominating presence on the Huskies’ penalty-killing unit.

Morris, the team’s all-time highest NHL draftpick (No. 27 overall, 2002, San Jose Sharks) had a brilliant freshman campaign for the Huskies in 2002-2003, finishing second on the team in goals and third in points (9-12-21) and was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team.

Morris led the team in assists the following season with 20. As a junior, he led in goals scored (19) and was named a Hockey East All-Star. Before last season began, Morris was injured in a car accident, and had to sit out the season. Though there were questions about how well he would play after such a long absence, Morris has been dynamic this season. He is second in assists, and has greatly aided the development of the many freshman forwards like Costello and freshman forward Kyle Kraemer.

Head coach Greg Cronin applauded the whole senior class on helping with the advancement of the freshmen.

“They’re a cooperative and unselfish group of guys,” he said. “Every one of them has been so enthusiastic and supportive.”

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