By Dan Harrison
---- — SALEM — Salem State men’s hockey freshman forward Andrew Bucci is one of the fastest skaters in the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference. He carves up the ice with strides that seem almost effortless.
But looks can be deceiving.
The Peabody native is all about effort, and his determination to become a more complete player has allowed Bucci to work his way into significant playing time for the Vikings as a top six forward. Head coach Bill O’Neill uses him on both the power play and shorthanded units.
“Coming into the year I really wanted to crack the lineup, and it was tough. Practices were my games; the only way I could get noticed by
coach (O’Neill) was to work hard so he had no doubt in his mind to play me,” Bucci said.
“I just try to bring an effort and do it for him and for the guys in the locker room. It’s team first. All I care about is winning.”
Bucci didn’t see action in Salem State’s first two games, but got his chance in Game 3 against Fitchburg State — and made the most of it, having not left the lineup since.
“It was a little weird. I wasn’t expecting the pace,” noted Bucci. “But once the nerves got out and the first shift was done with, it was just a regular hockey game to me.”
A 2010 Peabody High graduate who helped lead the Tanners to their first Division 2 North final as a senior, Bucci spent two years sharpening his game with the Boston Junior Bulldogs in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. In his second season there, he was 10th in the AJHL in scoring with 22 goals, 26 assists and 48 points in 42 games.
This winter, the 21-year-old freshman has had three goals and six assists through 13 games for Salem State. But it’s his reliability on special teams that makes him such a valuable piece on this year’s Vikings’ squad; one of Bucci’s three goals has come on the power play.
“Bucci has always been in the mix, but he’s moved himself into where he’s a top six forward for us,” O’Neill said. “He put his time in. He’s been able to make the adjustment (to the college game) very well for us. He’s got a lot of courage when he’s playing; he’s not afraid to
go to the net, give a check or take a check.”
Willingness to adapt
Courage is key for guys looking to make an impact while skating on the shorthanded unit. The forwards play at the top of the box and have to be mindful of both the opponent’s defensemen at the points and the forwards sneaking up the half-wall.
In three of Salem State’s mad-down situations during its Jan. 17 game against Plymouth State Bucci was the first forward to hop the boards for the penalty kill, and the Vikings didn’t allow a man-down goal when he was on the ice.
“It’s all hard work. He’s busting his butt to work hard and to get onto those special teams,” Salem State senior captain Matt Kenline said of Bucci. “On the penalty kill, we can use his speed; it’s a huge asset. He’s a smart player in getting pucks out (of the defensive zone) when we need him to.
“He’s fast; I haven’t seen speed like that in a while. He’s a freshman and getting a shot trying to make something happen on this team.”
Now as Bucci gets more and more opportunities to prove himself on the ice, he’s also acclimating himself to the speed and pace of the college game.
“Guys are a lot faster, a lot stronger and a lot bigger. It was hard to adapt, but I was confident going in because I work hard and am always trying to improve my game,” Bucci said. “Goalies are a lot bigger, too, so you really have to work hard to get space on the ice to get the puck.”
It’s this realization that has Bucci already tweaking his game and looking ahead to the areas he needs to improve upon most to continue and increase his — and the team’s — success.
The Vikings have run into trouble offensively when opposing teams pack it in tight to their goalie and force them to shoot from the outside. So priority No. 1 for Bucci going forward this year and into the offseason will be to hone his shooting abilities.
“I think I have to start to improve my shot and start shooting from the top of the circles,” he said. “I have to start trying to get the puck to the net, shoot through screens and beat goalies from far out.”
Bounce back ability
Bucci’s always had a lot of hockey intelligence, but in the college game you’ve got to be able to take your lumps. He’s a far cry from an enforcer, but that doesn’t mean he is going to shy away from contact in the corners or at the blue line.
Late in the third period of a recent game against Plymouth State, Bucci dumped the puck in and tried to squeeze his way between the defender and the PSU bench. For his troubles, Bucci got clotheslined pretty good and lost his helmet, but hopped right back up and shook it off easily after the game.
“I’ve taken shots like that all the time trying to get to traffic areas. You have to take hits for your team,” said Bucci.
“I’ve been playing this game for a long time. It’s a competitive game out there, and those are the hits you have to take to win. It’s part of the game.”