By Arielle Aronson/DFP Staff
For months, Jan. 13 has been a likely pick as one of the more interesting matchups on the 2011-12 Hockey East schedule. That Friday night will mark the first time Northeastern University forward Vinny Saponari will face his former team, the No. 6 Boston University Terriers.
Saponari was dismissed from the BU hockey team in May of 2010 for “conduct unbecoming of a Boston University hockey player,” said coach Jack Parker in a press release at the time. After spending a year playing in the United States Hockey League with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Saponari made his return to Hockey East with a rebuilt Northeastern team under the reigns of new head coach Jim Madigan.
The Huskies struggled out of the gate, going 1-7-2 through their first 10 games. But Northeastern has caught fire as of late, going unbeaten in its last eight games to finish out 2011 with an 8-7-3 overall record.
“They’re doing it by winning on the road at Minnesota, on the road at North Dakota, at Notre Dame twice, on the road at Michigan, so it’s not like they’re playing the little sisters of the poor at home too,” Parker said. “So they’ve done a great job of turning their season around, and they’ll be a team to be reckoned with in our league and outside of our league for the rest of the year.”
Saponari, the fourth-leading scorer on the team (three goals, 10 assists), shared in the recent success with six points (two goals, four assists) in those eight games. Over the last few days, Saponari shared his excitement about facing BU on Twitter and even engaged in some friendly teasing with a couple of his former teammates.
Despite Saponari’s complicated past with BU, however, Parker said he does not expect it to have any effect on the game itself.
“It won’t be any different,” Parker said. “My teams have played against guys in that situation before.”
Sophomore defenseman Adam Clendening was not on a BU team with Saponari, but he did provide a bit more color when asked how he thought his teammates would react to playing Saponari.
“Those guys, they know what happened and how it happened and that kind of thing,” Clendening said. “There’s obviously a friendly rivalry there. I don’t think we’ll take it over the top there. Obviously bragging rights are on the line. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully we come out on top.”
The game will also be an interesting study in motivation. Northeastern is slated to face No. 4 Boston College at Fenway Park on Saturday. BU’s Saturday opponent, Harvard University, will also play at Fenway Park this weekend, as they face Union College on Yawkey Way on Friday.
Parker said he does not expect the excitement of Fenway Park to distract the Terriers opponents, especially Northeastern, from focusing on the BU game this weekend.
“I think it will be pretty easy for them because they’ll be geared up playing at home against BU, absolutely, they’re certainly not looking by us to go play BC,” Parker said. “If they were just playing BC at BC at their own place, that would be a little different, but then they get geared back up again to go play something completely different that never happened before, playing at Fenway Park.”
Parker added that his own team cannot look past either game this weekend. The game against Northeastern Friday gives BU a chance to remain in first place in league standings. The game against Harvard Saturday night gives the Terriers a chance to rise above .500 in out-of-conference play.
And any win at all would provide the Terriers with more confidence in their ability following one of the most difficult winter breaks in recent memory.
“I think it was important to get a win when we played against Merrimack to let us know, okay, we’re still pretty good,” Parker said. “But it doesn’t mean we’re going to be pretty good the next team. And that’s something that all teams have to deal with.
“You don’t win games on last week’s sweat. You win games on this week’s sweat.”
– Despite Northeastern’s improvement in the standings, they have yet to figure out their power play. The Huskies are running at a 9.8 percent clip on the man-advantage, good for third-to-last in the nation.
– Harvard’s power play falls at the other end of that spectrum. The Crimson are converting at an astronomical 34.9 percent success rate. They have 22 power-play goals in 63 chances this season.
– BU, meanwhile, is the most penalized team in the nation, leading all of college hockey with an average of 20.7 PIM per game.
– Senior goaltender Kieran Millan is expected to make the start in net on Friday at Matthews Arena. Barring any last-minute changes, senior forward Kevin Gilroy and junior defenseman Ryan Ruikka will be healthy scratches on Friday night.