Beanpot 2014: Harvard, Northeastern meet for chance to end years of misery

Mike McMurtry and his Northeastern teammates look to capture the school's first Beanpot since 1988. - Matt Dewkett (mrd-photos.com)

Northeastern's Clay Witt has the best save percentage of any goaltender in NCAA Division I Hockey.

BOSTON -- Harvard hasn't won the Beanpot since 1993. Northeastern hasn't claimed the 'Pot since 1988. The two schools will meet in the first semifinal on Monday afternoon at the TD Garden in hopes to claim a spot in the championship game, and perhaps end decades of misery.

Those other two Boston schools, Boston College and Boston University, have since dominated the tournament where the winner gets hockey bragging rights in the city for the next year.

Boston College is once again the prohibitive favorite, but there are reasons to believe that Northeastern, especially, but also Harvard, could break the curse in 2014.

Northeastern, picked to finish dead last in Hockey East by both the coaches and media during the preseason, has exceeded expectations. The Huskies enter the tournament tied for second place in Hockey East with UMass-Lowell and have an overall record of 15-8-3.

The Huskies have a propensity to give up a lot of shots, but the goaltending of redshirt junior Clay Witt and a skillful offense has carried Jim Madigan's team. Those two factors will give Northeastern the upper hand in Monday's semifinal and also give the Huntington Hounds hope to end a quarter of a center drought.

Witt's .943 save percentage is tops in the nation, and he has kept the Huskies in countless games that they did not belong to have a chance. The Brandon, Fla. native has been solid almost every game, but one particular stretch last month was scary good. He made 131 of 136 saves for a .963 save percentage over a three game span that saw his team pull off victories at Providence, against UMass Lowell at Fenway Park and Vermont at Matthews Arena.

"He was off to a fresh start this year. He came in ready and wanting to assume the number one role. He's a great athlete and worked a lot on his game. He's played very well and been one of the best goalies in the league this season," said Madigan.

Sophomore Kevin Roy won the tournament MVP honors last season after notching a hat trick in the semifinal win over Boston University and adding two more goals against BC in the final. Senior Braden Pimm has had a breakout season with 15 goals, but the freshman class has received plenty of much-deserved attention.

Led by Michael Szmatula, the rookie class has scored 29 of the team's 85 goals, but also has a staggering 98 of the club's 227 points.

"When we recruited the class we knew that it could come in and contribute. Mike Szmatula and Dalen Hedges were leading point getters in their league in junior, and not just one year, but for a couple," said Madigan.

The Crimson are on the other end of the spectrum from Northeastern, having come up short of expectations so far this season.

Harvard has a lot of talent, but as it has so often over the past few seasons, has been unable to see that talent gel into one cohesive unit. Despite that, Ted Donato believes his team is on the verge of turning it around this season.

"We're very close. We probably played our best game of the year against Union last week. We still came out on the wrong end, 4-3, but we're still learning how to win. I think we've turned the corner since the holidays. It hasn't showed up in wins and losses, but I do see our team improving," said the former Crimson and NHL veteran.

No player on the Crimson has more skill than sophomore forward and Nashville Predators prospect Jimmy Vesey. The Charlestown, Mass. native has 11 goals and six assists on the season. He and classmate Kyle Criscuolo each have four goals on the man advantage.

"You need your best players to be your best players. It's important. Guys like Vesey, Criscuolo, Alexander Kerfoot and Sean Malone need to have big nights for us," explained Donato.

Harvard will likely turn to goaltender Raphael Girard between the pipes. The Quebec native has a 2.35 goals against average and a .931 save percentage with two shutouts on the season.

Donato's club is also an extremely young group, and many of the players have yet to experience the full grasp of the Beanpot, according to the head coach.

"A lot of them are going through it for the first time. I personally feel that until you get a chance to play in the championship game, you really don't have a great understanding of what it's all about. Hopefully we'll have that opportunity this year," said Donato.

"Northeastern is obviously a great challenge, sitting up near the top in Hockey East. They found a way to make plays at important times. They're getting outstanding goaltending and special teams. They have some real dangerous guys offensively," explained Donato.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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