NU has high hopes in Beanpot final

BOSTON -- Say this much about Northeastern hockey coach Greg Cronin: He’s no wimp. It takes guts to stand up before the assembled Boston media, as Cronin did last Monday night, and admit he’s a Yankees fan.

How does Cronin explain his baseball allegiance? “I liked the Yankees because they would always win, and the Red Sox would lose,” Cronin said after his Huskies dispatched the Harvard Crimson in the opening round of the Beanpot, 4-0.

The analogy wasn’t lost on anybody in attendance. The revered Beanpot has been the personal prize of the “other” local schools, with Boston University (29) and Boston College (15) collecting 44 of the previous 58 trophies. Harvard has brought home 10. Northeastern’s take? Just four.

Cronin hopes to duplicate the winning traditions embodied by BU and BC at Northeastern (10-11-6). The next step could come on Monday, when his Huskies take on BC, at 21-6-0 the nation’s No. 1 team, in the Beanpot final. A Beanpot crown could serve to springboard Cronin’s squad into the season’s stretch run, with two more games coming up against the Eagles next weekend.

BC, meanwhile, brings a Beanpot finals record of 15-15 into Monday’s match, one of the few competitions in which the Eagles don’t own a winning record (to be fair, BC is 68-49 in all Beanpot games). The Eagles’ success, associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh said, is predicated on not resting on the laurels of past trophies, and not looking too far ahead.

“If you asked the Yankees in their heyday, I don’t think they’d look at themselves as the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s, when they won nine of 10 titles,” said Cavanaugh, speaking on behalf of head coach Jerry York, who was dealing with laryngitis. “Or if you asked John Wooden’s UCLA teams, when they were on a great stretch, I don’t think they looked at themselves as a dynasty.

“I think what makes you a successful program is, as cliché as it might sound, is focusing on that next game. That’s Jerry’s mantra. I guarantee you that John Wooden’s teams didn’t get full of themselves. I know Red Auerbach’s teams didn’t get full of themselves.”

Cavanaugh said he expects a typical swarming Husky team to show up at TD Garden, and his Eagles will have to be prepared to play hard from the opening faceoff. “Since Greg Cronin has been at Northeastern, one of the staples for his program has been a team that has tireless workers and fierce competitors,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s not easy to get your players to play that hard all the time. And I think Greg’s done a tremendous job there.”

Cavanaugh said the Eagles will have to keep a close eye on NU’s skilled forwards, notably Tyler McNeely, Wade MacLeod, Steve Quailer and the resurrected Mike McLaughlin, who notched two goals against Harvard. “They’re going to get shots on goal,” he said. “We just have to do a good job of limiting second-chance opportunities.”

Cavanaugh said the key for BC is to play its game. “We want to play our brand of hockey, which is skating and moving pucks at a fast pace,” he said. “Sometimes a helter-skelter game, a game with a lot of penalties, takes us out of our type of play. We’re playing our best when we’re moving pucks, when we’re skating, and we’re playing up-tempo. We really have to focus on that.”

Both teams took care of business on Friday by registering league wins on the road, with BC shutting down Providence 3-0, and Northeastern coming from behind to trip up UMass-Lowell 3-2 in overtime. NU’s McLaughlin, a junior from Seaforth, Ontario, stayed hot, registering another goal against the River Hawks (his 10th of the season).

“It was a relief to score early this season and get the weight off my shoulders and give me a little confidence,” McLaughlin said after the Harvard game. “Scoring two goals tonight is hopefully going to help me down the stretch. It’s nice to contribute. I just want to get us one step closer to winning a title.”

In any title game, goaltending plays a critical role, and both teams have stud netminders.

Sophomore Chris Rawlings has helped erase the sting among the Northeastern faithful of All-American Brad Thiessen leaving school early to join the pro ranks. The 6-foot-5 British Columbia native has been immense for the Huskies, with a .935 save percentage and five shutouts, including last Monday’s semifinal win.

“Chris Rawlings is obviously playing on top of his game,” Cavanaugh said. “And I don’t care who you’re playing or how good a team you are, if the other goaltender is playing on top of his game, it’s going to be a tight game.

“You can equate it to baseball, with a stud pitcher. Pedro Martinez, in his prime, could have pitched for any college team and given the Yankees a game. He was that good. So that’s our biggest concern.”

Rawlings seems unfazed by the pressure of the Beanpot. Asked last week about Northeastern’s 5-2 loss to BU in the 2009 final, he replied: “Guys like Tyler [McNeely] and Wade [MacLeod] and all the rest of the team, it was in their minds. But that was in the past. Now it’s completely different. It’s a new year.”

At the other end, John Muse, BC’s unflappable senior netminder, has continued his characteristic cool, calm, efficient play. After Friday’s blanking of Providence, he has a 1.88 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage and three shutouts. Perhaps more impressive, he has two Beanpot titles and two national championships on his resume.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had some fantastic goaltending, and they don’t get the credit they deserve,” Cavanaugh said. “In BC’s history, they’ve only had one first-team All-American goaltender [Cory Schneider]. I think a lot of it stems from having such a great team. I don’t care how good a team you have -- your goaltender has to be very good if you’re going to win championships.”

There is some Beanpot history between the teams, though not recent vintage. At the old Boston Garden, NU’s Wayne “Beanpot” Turner earned his nickname in 1980, when his overtime strike gave the 3-11 Huskies their first Beanpot crown, 5-4, over BC. Three years later, the Eagles made sure history didn’t repeat itself so quickly, drubbing Northeastern to the tune of 8-2. The Huskies’ last championship came in 1988, with a 6-3 win over BU.

Since 2000, BC has been to eight Beanpot finals, winning four times, including last year. Over the same stretch, the Huskies have made three Beanpot finals, losing each time to BU. The last, in 2009, was especially painful for Cronin and NU’s upperclassmen.

“I was thinking about two years ago in the final, and talk about goofy plays, pucks bouncing up in the air,” Cronin said. “The BU-Northeastern game was a great game. BU scores three short-handed goals and a power-play goal. That just doesn’t happen in the Beanpot. We end up losing that game. Last year, we played a terrific game against BU in the first round. Again [BU’s Alex] Chiasson shoots the puck and it squeaks through Rawlings’ shirt and trickles into the net.”

Which brought Cronin to his admission of being a Yankees fan. Winning programs, he said, find a way to pull out those close wins. The Huntington Hounds need to learn how to do that.

“The fans come in when you win,” Cronin said. “We have started to win incrementally. We started to fill the building and last year we had good crowds. Now this year, they have stopped showing up and I think you see a reflection of the fans when you are on the bench and you look into that left corner [of the Garden on Monday], and there wasn’t nearly as many black shirts as there was a year ago.”

“I think [the fans] have a little bit of the mentality of, ‘When are they going to win this damn thing?’ They get sick of it and I don’t blame them.”

Winning programs, conversely, sometimes deal with a certain ennui among their fans because they’ve been lulled by a consistently high level of play. But Cavanaugh doesn’t see that happening at BC this season. “We’re averaging almost 6,500 fans, which is more than anybody in the league,” he said. “Last year, in 16 games, we averaged 5,000. We’re averaging 1,500 more fans a game at home. So I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our fan support.

“I know Northeastern is going to bring a lot of people on Monday, and I just think it’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere for college hockey.”

“This is twice in the last three years that we are in the final, and I know we are going to have a tremendous opponent to play against,” Cronin said. “They would have to get both the NUPD and the Boston police on our campus if we won.”

There won’t be any need for reinforcements at Chestnut Hill if the Eagles claim their 16th Beanpot. At the Heights, they expect to win, even though the players know that no one -- especially not the Huskies -- plan to hand them a victory.