Beanpot Preview: This One's For All The Beans

Boston.com

When the smoke cleared Monday night, Boston College and Northeastern University emerged as the teams that would play in the final of the 62nd annual Beanpot tournament - to the surprise of no one.

Going into the opening round, you had two top 10 teams facing off against teams in the 40s (bare in mind there are 59 D1 teams). The games were, for the most part, a formality.

As far as Bruins fans are concerned, this is the matchup to have hoped for. With Matt Grzelcyk (BU) out for the season, NU and BC possess the only B's prospects in Boston. Interestingly, with the arrival of Wiley Sherman at Harvard, next year's Beanpot will feature Bruins draft picks on each team.

While Matt Benning and Ryan Fitzgerald will seek the same prize, the significance of winning could not be more different for each.

Where Eagles Dare

Ryan Fitzgerald's Boston College has laid waste to college hockey this year. At 20-4-3, they're well on their way to a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. In league play, they've been even better at 12-1-1.

To say BC is a juggernaut would be a bit of an understatement. They're the number one offense in the country. Their defense? Merely fifth. Slackers.

Their high powered offense is fueled by the best line in the nation - Bill Arnold, Kevin Hayes and the crown jewel, Johnny Gaudreau. The trio is fifth, second and first in the country in scoring, respectively.

As an aside, if you've never watched Johnny Gaudreau, do whatever you have to see this game. He is the best player in college hockey and it's not even worth entertaining a discussion about it.

Their back end is no less impressive. Steve Santini and Mike Matheson will lead a d-corps aiming to shut down Northeastern's offense. And in goal, draft eligible Thatcher Demko is emerging as a star in the making.

On Monday, BC will seek its fifth straight Beanpot and third over Northeastern in four years. The Eagles have been extremely dominant in the Beanpot of late, and at the TD Garden, as a whole, going 16-1 on Causeway Street since 2010.

Ryan Fitzgerald, meanwhile is a relative newcomer, having only contributed to the win earlier this week. Though BC truely took off when Arnold, Hayes and Gaudreau were united, Fitzgerald has not enjoyed the same success.

After 6-7-13 in his first 13, he's gone 3-6-9 in his last 14. Make no mistake, this hardly qualifies as a slump, but I do think the repositioning of lines isn't a coincidence.

Still, Fitzgerald has put together an impressive rookie season to date. He's BC's best option at secondary scoring, fourth in points and producing at .81 per game.

One With The Underdogs

There were minimal expectations for Northeastern before the season. Picked to finish dead last in Hockey East by coaches and media, no one had any idea they'd enter the Beanpot final eighth in the nation.

Against all odds, Northeastern has strung together a 16-8-3 record thanks to the otherworldly play of goaltender Clay Witt. After emerging from two years as a backup, Witt grabbed the reigns as NU's starting goalie and never let go, posting a .945 save percentage - good for best in the nation.

If you've watched Northeastern this year (as I have extensively), you'll quickly realize how heavily the team relies on him. Northeastern allows 35 shots on goal a game, sixth most in the country. Witt, meanwhile, typically saves 33.86 of those.

If you'd like some more evidence of this, their corsi% is 48.2, which is a bit worse than the New York Islanders. In league play, where the competition has been better, they're even worse at 43.4%, which is basically the Edmonton Oilers.

AND YET - Northeastern currently finds itself tied for second in Hockey East (albeit with Lowell having a game in hand) and in the mix for a NCAA Tournament spot. Witt for Hobey.

Though Witt does deserve a substantial amount of credit, Northeastern also features the nation's ninth best offense. Individually, Kevin Roy and Mike Szmatula are both in the top 20 in scoring in the nation while Braden Pimm is 10th in goal scoring.

Truth be told, the hallmark of the team's scoring is the youth. Of their top eight scorers, five are freshmen and two are sophomores. Included in that group is Matt Benning.

Though he was held off the scoresheet for six straight games, Benning has provided a tremendous offensive presence on the blue line. He's also grown tremendously as a defender since he stepped onto the college scene and is arguably NU's top d-man right now.

For Northeastern, a victory would mean the end of an era. Since 1989, Northeastern has gone empty handed in this tournament.

In a tournament that requires just two victories to win, Northeastern has defied the odds and has gone without for a quarter century. A win on Monday would bring unprecedented celebration from the Northeastern community, myself included.

Can We Start Again

As previously mentioned, this is the third final between BC and Northeastern in the past four years (that other year they met in the opening round). They've also met twice this year, both BC victories.

While BC controlled much of the first game, eventually winning 4-2, NU built a 3-1 lead in game 2, but fell 4-3 in overtime. Northeastern's defense looked overmatched against BC at times, Benning especially. They'll have their hands full on Monday.

While BC has a decisive advantage on the blue line, the edge up front is not as drastic. I would still give the edge to BC, but they can both score with the best of them. Same for goaltending, which is a matchup of 10 (Demko) vs. one (Witt).

Ultimately, I foresee BC hoisting the trophy for the fifth straight year. The speed and skill of the Eagles is not easily combatted. They are, quite simply, an elite team.

Northeastern, on the other hand, is riding a 104 PDO. Their success, though a pleasant surprise (for me especially), is just not sustainable. Then again, it's only one game.

Boston Belongs to Me

Those of you unfamiliar to the Beanpot might be wondering why this post is being written. There are, after all, dozens of in-season tournaments. None of the others possess the geography and tradition contained in the Beanpot.

There are four schools in Boston with D1 hockey programs (ignore the fact that Harvard and Boston College are not in Boston, please). This quantity, mixed with their generally quality programs, creates an environment unlike any other.

This environment is fueled by the schools themselves. As some of the leading schools in the country, these institutions are constantly jockeying for supremacy (granted, Harvard is Harvard). Students at these schools, deem students at others as rivals in every way, shape and form.

When it comes to the games, each school gets a corner of the balcony in the Garden. With the exception of Harvard of late, the schools can be counted on to pack the stands and make lots of noise. It's a fantastic experience.

That sort of environment has fueled this tournament for players who anticipate it like Christmas morning. Likewise, it's become a crucial part of the identity of those who attend these schools.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I always knew about the Beanpot. Even before I was really immersed in the sport, the Beanpot was an annual tradition. Ryan Fitzgerald, who grew up a town over from me, is unquestionably ecstatic to join the tradition.

And I understand that some people don't like the Beanpot, I really do. I'm not one of them.

It's the only Mondays I look forward to every year and I still get goosebumps in the Garden. The 2011 loss to the Eagles was akin to the 2010 playoff series loss to the Flyers to me.

The Beanpot has become engrained in the Boston hockey culture just as much as almost any facet of the Bruins. On Monday that tradition will resume.

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