By Dan Harrison
---- — The Salem State University men’s hockey team plays in its first NCAA Division 3 tournament game since 1995 tonight at 7 p.m. when the Vikings square off against Norwich University at Kreitzberg Arena in Northfield, Vt.
Salem State has relied on its skill, character and commitment this winter, and three North Shore natives — forwards Andrew Bucci and Alex Minter of Peabody and defenseman Keaton Cashin of Boxford — have been paramount to its success.
Minter, a freshman, has given the team a big lift offensively. The winger is second on the team in points with 25, tied for first in goals with 11 and power play goals with three. Bucci and Cashin, who are both sophomores, saw similar success in their first seasons with Salem State.
“These days, freshmen come in and they’ve played a lot of hockey and traveled a lot of miles,” explained SSU (16-9-2) head coach Bill O’Neill. “They bring emotions and enthusiasm and a skill set. Alex is a talented player who’s had a terrific freshman year. He seems older than that now.”
In the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference Championship game, Minter scored a goal and added an assist as the Vikings claimed a 5-1 victory over Plymouth State. He is fast and dangerous with the puck, but his speed isn’t just an offensive weapon as O’Neill has made him a mainstay on the penalty kill.
“When you have a freshman coming and doing what he did, it rises the team and gives you energy and makes you want to do better,” explained Cashin. “(Minter’s) great in the locker room and a great friend. Very creative with the puck.”
As a freshman, Bucci flourished in 23 games by finishing with 11 points, including a game-winning goal. While he put the time in during the offseason, Bucci was left frustrated in the early goings in this, his sophomore campaign, when he couldn’t crack the starting lineup.
Bucci kept working and remained positive, making the most of spot starts. O’Neill recognized Bucci’s hard work both at practice and in workouts and eventually, Bucci proved his worth and has been in the lineup every night for the home stretch of the season. His presence seemed to lift the entire team as the Vikings finished the season winning six of its last seven.
“It’s been some ups and downs. At the beginning of the year I wasn’t playing, then in the middle of the year I played some. The last eight or nine games I’ve been staying in. The set lineup has helped the consistency of our team,” said Bucci, who has seven points in 11 games.
“I could have given up. I was a little frustrated but it was a good life lesson. I kept working and a couple bounces fell for me.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Cashin, always one of the last Vikings off the ice at practice, is a rock on the blueline as well as reliable. One of SSU’s leaders in ice time who plays on both special teams units, he can also play forward and is the ideal player in 4-on-4 situations due to his speed and playmaking ability.
“He’s a horse,” O’Neill said of Cashin, a former Masconomet Regional star who has played in all 27 of the Vikings’ games. “He logs lots of minutes and plays every situation.”
Cashin’s familiarity with offense makes him that much more valuable back on D. The more he can think like a forward, the better he’s prepared to stop the opposition.
“Being able to do both positions is an advantage. When I’m on offense I know where the defense is going to be and when I’m on defense I know where the offense is going to be,” said Cashin. “I enjoy doing it. I love blocking shots and doing it for my teammates.”
The Boxford native is a big body that can play as physical as necessary and is an intimidating force. Cashin has that rare combination of size and speed that makes him equally effective against both the bruising power forwards and the speedsters like Minter and Bucci.
“(Cashin’s) a grinder,” noted Bucci. “He’s big and strong and for a big guy he can really move. It’s hard to get by him in the corners.”
Salem State will need all three North Shore guys on top of their games tonight against Norwich (19-6-3), which has been one of the top Division 3 hockey programs in the country for nearly two decades. But in the NCAA tournament, everyone is good and the Vikings are no exception.
“We’re excited to play them and try and make a name for ourselves,” said Cashin. “Every week we’re figuring something new out about our team. It’s all come together at the end of the season — and that’s what you need.”
Outside of O’Neill, the Vikings have no NCAA experience and will be going against a team in Norwich that is loaded with guys who’ve been there before (this is the Cadets’ fifth straight year in the posteason). However, Salem State is no stranger to the big stage, having played in the Frozen Fenway Classic this winter against UMass Boston. The Beacons defeated SSU 4-2 and are one of the common opponents that both Norwich and the Vikings played this season. Norwich split with the Beacons and is coming off a loss to Babson in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Championship. Babson downed Salem State, 4-1, but it was early in the season and the Vikings have grown a lot since then.
“It’s been a little hectic. We’re going in with the mindset like we’ve got nothing to lose,” said Bucci. “People are doubting us, but we have a team that can make a big run. I’m confident we can get by Norwich if we put in a full 60-minute effort. And a little luck. helps.”