The Northeastern men’s ice hockey team and Hobey Baker candidate Zach Aston-Reese make their long awaited return to Hockey East conference play this weekend, as the Huskies travel to Burlington, VT for a single game against the Vermont Catamounts. The first half of the season series between NU and UVM took place in October (Due to Hockey East making up scheduling rules on the fly and forcing NU to not play during Frozen Fenway) and featured a heartbreaking Huskies loss. NU, playing without either of the Stevens brothers, allowed a soft goal late in the game to fall 3-2 to the Catamounts on home ice. The last time these teams met in Burlington was October of 2015, where the story was eerily similar, as Derick Roy allowed a soft goal with 2:01 to play in the third to turn a victory into a 3-3 draw.
The Catamounts are the surprise of Hockey East this year. While we did note in our season preview that Vermont was a far better team in 2015-16 than their record indicated, most preseason polls picked them no higher than seventh in the conference. Coming out of the break, Vermont sits tied for third in Hockey East and ranks 11th in the Pairwise. On Tuesday night, they improved to 13-6-2 with their third consecutive victory, a 4-3 win over the St. Lawrence Skating Saints.
Looking to the personnel on the ice, the Catamounts are led by freshman sensation Stefanos Lekkas in net. Lekkas has taken Hockey East by storm as a member of the extremely strong class of freshman goalies this year, posting an 11-3-2 record along with a .923 save percentage and a GAA just north of 2. Up front, calling Vermont “balanced” would be an understatement. Another freshman, Ross Colton, leads the team in scoring with just 15 points. Behind him, however, are 9 players who have double digit points on the year, plus five more with 7-9 points. For comparison, the Huskies have just five players with more than 8 points on the year.
Northeastern will have to defend the fourth line with just as much focus as the first if they want to come away with a win this weekend. As they’ve seen in their last few games against Vermont, if they let up for a second it can come back to haunt them. Expect another strong performance from the top six and possibly the debut of Liam Pecararo, who continues to be snagged in NCAA “certification” issues. The third line came alive for NU in Tuesday’s game against Yale, with Brendan Collier and Sam Kurker connecting for the Huskies’ first goal and Matt Filipe picking up an assist later in the night. Getting additional scoring from that line and balancing out the attack a bit could be a key improvement moving forward. On the back end, the story remains the same. We know what Northeastern has in net, and that they’ll likely need to win in spite of it. The Huskies’ defense will look to succeed by suppression: block every puck they can, then be in position to clear the seemingly inevitable rebounds from the crease before Vermont can get to them.
With Northeastern boasting a 1-6-2 conference record and in 11th place in Hockey East, we’ve reached the point in the season where it’s win or die for the Huskies. In each of the past two years the team has roared to life around this time of year, so now it’s time to see if there’s any more Husky Magic left in the tank. The run to home ice begins in Burlington, but if the Huskies can’t step up and start getting into the win column, there exists a real chance that the hole is too deep before NU even plays another game at Matthews Arena.