If there is anyone in Hockey East who can empathize with David Quinn — struggling to find any consistency in a young team during his first season as head coach — it might be the man running the opposing bench this weekend.
Jim Madigan suffered a similar poor start in his tenure as the Northeastern men’s hockey coach, guiding the Huskies to a 13-16-5 record in 2011-12 after being hired the summer before. That regressed to a 9-21-4 mark last year.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the No. 9 Huskies are one of the top teams in the conference this season, and it will be that team Boston University wraps up its regular season against this weekend. The team’s open up a home-and-home series at 7 p.m. Friday at Agganis Arena — featuring a senior night ceremony before the game, then the Jack Parker number retirement ceremony during the first intermission — followed by a 7 p.m. matchup at Matthews Arena the next night.
Northeastern has surprised a lot of people with its 18-10-4 record (10-6-2 Hockey East), but according to Quinn there is a simple difference between the Huskies and Terriers (8-20-4, 3-12-3 Hockey East).
“They figured out how to win close games,” Quinn said. “We haven’t.
“They’re in the middle of the pack in almost every stat. It’s not like they’re doing one thing great.”
Given the numbers, the Huskies’ success should not be a surprise.
Northeastern boasts the second-best offense in the league at 3.28 goals per game. Sophomore forward Kevin Roy leads the way with 17 goals and 25 assists, while freshman forward Mike Szmatula isn’t far behind with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists). Senior forward Braden Pimm (31 points) has scored a team-high 18 goals in his career year.
At the other end, senior goaltender Clay Witt is enjoying a breakout year to the tune of a .940 save percentage — the best in the country — and a 2.17 goals-against average.
“Maturity,” Quinn said of what has lead to Witt’s large jump. “It happens a lot in college hockey when guys score three goals in one season and then they score 25. It just happens. Patience, maturity, opportunity. He was a really good goalie growing up, so this doesn’t surprise a lot of people in college hockey.”
All together it means Northeastern is in third place in conference, with a chance to finish anywhere between second and sixth. But so it goes in the Hockey East standings.
BU is in a far less enviable position heading into the final weekend. The Terriers are in 10th, and there is a slight chance — if they lose out and Merrimack College wins out — they finish in last. BU is guaranteed to be on the road next weekend in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament, but where that will happen is still up in the air. The most likely destinations seem to be the University of Vermont or the University of Notre Dame.
Quinn said he does not have a preference on who BU gets paired up with, but he noted that if the Terriers do have to go back to South Bend, Ind., he would rather it not be via the same hectic route they took last week, when they made three unexpected pit stops before finally landing in Chicago.
“You want to travel as little as possible,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the opponent.”
According to Quinn, where BU ends up is less important than the momentum they carry into the looming one-game playoff.
The Terriers are in a stretch that could be described as a slump even during the season they’re having. Since last winning over a month ago, BU is 0-7-2, including a current five-game losing streak. BU has scored once in its last three games and is coming off being shut out by Notre Dame in back-to-back games last weekend.
During that stretch, BU’s power-play success rate has plummeted from hovering around 22 percent to 17.5 percent, seventh in Hockey East and barely better than Northeastern’s 17.2 percent. The Terriers have given up a league-worst 10 shorthanded goals, again topping Northeastern’s eight. No other team in the conference has given up more than five.
“Our power play has really gone south in a hurry,” Quinn said. “We are what we are. We’re not opportunistic right now. Our power play is letting us down.”
Notes: Sophomore Sean Maguire will start Friday, while sophomore Matt O’Connor is scheduled to start Saturday. . . . Quinn said he will stick with the same lines the team rolled out last game, which featured a first line of forwards Evan Rodrigues, Danny O’Regan and Kevin Duane from left to right.