It was a tale of two very different games, but the Northeastern Huskies are 2-0-0 in conference play for the first time since 2012. After a hat trick by Adam Gaudette led the Huskies to a 3-1 victory at the Tsongas Center on Friday, a Patrick Schule overtime goal on Saturday night gave Northeastern a 5-4 decision and sent a Matthews Arena crowd of nearly 4,000 home happy. Ryan Ruck started both games on the weekend, picking up 23 saves each night. Friday also marked Head Coach Jim Madigan’s 100th career victory behind the Huskies’ bench and Gaudette was named Hockey East Player of the Week for his effort.
The story of the game on Friday night, outside of Gaudette himself, was the dominant play of the Huskies’ special teams and defense. Northeastern had 3 power play chances on the night and made the most of them, as Gaudette scored his first goal with around 30 seconds remaining on the first advantage, notched his second goal just 20 seconds into the second opportunity, and finally completed his natural hat trick with 5 seconds to play in the second period, just two seconds after a Nick Master hooking penalty expired.
The Huskies penalty kill wasn’t far behind, with a 4 for 4 game and one of their best performances in recent memory, killing off back to back penalties in the first to conserve a one goal lead and another to start the third just as Lowell was turning on the jets for a comeback. Connor Sodergren got a late goal to break the shutout and Garrett Cecere saved a puck from crossing the goal line with his skates in the waning moments, but ultimately, the lead Gaudette gave the Huskies was never truly threatened.
Coming into the game Saturday against, everybody in the building knew that if the Huskies were to get a sweep, they wouldn’t be able to beat Norm Bazin the same way twice. That thought was very much the reality, as the Huskies went 0-8 on the power play while conceding a shorthanded goal, including an unprecedented 0-4 on four long 5 on 3 opportunities. But they found goals in other ways, starting when Grant Jozefek opened the scoring with an absolute snipe after keeping the puck himself on a 3-on-1 rush. The River Hawks came back to take a 2-1 lead courtesy of Avi Berisha and Mattias Goransson goals, but Gaudette made his mark again by racing for a loose puck and finding it just in time to pot a shorthanded goal to take back the momentum.
The difference for the Huskies came from the bottom six though, first when Bobby Hampton took a puck in the slot and ripped it off the post and in for his first collegiate goal. Ryan Lohin (SHG) and Nolan Stevens traded goals moments later, and Lowell tied the game for the final time with just 1:38 to play on a 6 on 4 power play goal by Ryan Dmowski. It was all Huskies after that though, and the bottom six came through again when Patrick Schule struck 2:10 into an overtime period where Lowell failed to record a shot on goal. Schule played a puck from behind the net and it somehow bounced it home for the win, on a play where Lincoln Griffin was waiting in front but apparently never touched the puck.
While the star of the weekend is undoubtedly Adam Gaudette, the junior center reminded everyone he’s still as good as ever after having been overshadowed by linemate Dylan Sikura so far this season, there’s just not a whole lot more you can say about the Huskies’ unstoppable first line these days.
So moving past Adam, the Huskies’ penalty kill is next. They held Lowell off the board for each of their first 7 chances on the weekend and only conceded on the 8th with an extra attacker on the ice. While it wasn’t always pretty, there were a few times where Lowell should have had an easy goal only to shoot themselves in the foot, they got the job done. I would still like to see some further improvement, especially because those near Lowell misses are going to go in on most days if they keep allowing them. There’s also a worrying schematic choice that seems to be happening where the Huskies try to stand up the opposing team on the blue line with all four killers, only to have the puck chipped through them and get burned. Quinnipiac scored against that play and Lowell clearly saw it coming, attempting to skate around it multiple times and eventually creating a breakaway that was nullified by an offsides call away from the play. While I appreciate the thought process of stopping the power play before it starts, any scheme that leads to a team on the power play getting breakaways is not exactly ideal.
On to the Huskies’ power play; this weekend’s performance was up and down. It (and Gaudette) almost singlehandedly won the game Friday, but it was basically an unmitigated disaster Saturday, with an 0-8 showing and a shorthanded goal allowed along with multiple prime 4-on-5 and even 3-on-5 opportunities for Lowell that Ryan Ruck was able to keep out of the net. Obviously having the most lethal PP1 unit in the country is fantastic, but they need to pay attention to their opposition and not just skate onto the ice assuming they’re about to get a free goal and they don’t have to defend their opposition.
In net, Ruck was solid. There were still constant shades of the Ryan Ruck we all know – every time he turns around and finds himself facing the net with his back to the play I have a small heart attack – but for the most part he saved what he could save. It’s starting to look like we’re in for another year where the Huskies aren’t going to have a goalie steal a game, but if they have a guy back there who can save the ones he’s supposed to save and not allow any weak goals or awful rebounds, the veteran defense should be challenged to take care of the rest. Ruck did that this weekend and is likely in line to start at Agganis on Saturday.
Going through the defensemen, Jeremy Davies is a stud and posted a three point weekend, Shea was very effective whether paired with Cecere or Eric Williams, posting multiple assists and a +5 rating while not being on the ice for a single goal against until the 6 on 4, and both Cecere and Williams played well. Williams in particular seemed to shore up a lot of the flaws he’s shown in the past, partially because of Cecere taking on an increased load and adjusting well to it. Regardless of which of the two is more responsible for the change and should be on the second pairing going forward, whatever they figured out this week seems to be working. Trevor Owens needs to be better, he’s taking way too many penalties for a third pairing guy (two more this weekend for four in the last 5 games) and was on the ice for 2 of the first 3 Lowell goals this weekend. I don’t expect the world and perfection from the third pairing, I’m just noticing him too much. In general. the less a casual fan notices the third pairing, the better they are.
But I want to talk about Garret Cockerill. Cockerill, while always a threat offensively and one of the best offensive defensemen in the conference (See also: Davies, Jeremy), once again showed that he doesn’t have the foot speed to be a top pairing shutdown defenseman in Hockey East, allowing Lowell forwards to blow past him while on the power play, at even strength, and shorthanded. He is not a bad hockey player by any stretch of the imagination and he has a professional future, but he’s not a first pairing top minutes kind of defenseman. He’s best in a role like the one he and Colton Saucerman were able to take in the run to the Hockey East Championship, protected by a top flight guy like Matt Benning at the top of the depth chart and able to be deployed offensively behind him.
Unfortunately, Cockerill HAS to be the 1D on this team, as the other options are Williams, who is a similar offense-minded player in most respects, and Cecere, who is a left handed D who is being forced to play his off-hand side and already doing so better than most coaches could possibly ask. So rather than complaining about a kid forced into a situation he shouldn’t be in, I’m just going to say, can we please just spend a week of practice focusing on nothing but keeping guys in front of him? It’s great when you stop them from getting past, but like with the four man line penalty kill, when they do get past it’s catastrophic. I very much do not want to see brother Logan fly past Garret and score a goal for BU next week. Please don’t let that happen.
Offensively, the top six should stay the top six (at least for one more game until Sikura leaves to score 100 goals for Canada.) Let skill play with skill. The second line has been quiet since we stopped playing AHC teams, but hopefully Nolan’s goal Saturday starts to change that. The bottom six has been interchangable on a game-by-game basis lately, but in my opinion, a clear heirarchy has developed. Griffin is obviously an everyday player, and I think Picking and Hampton have both earned their spots as two centermen who can win draws and keep up at this level. Hampton’s goal this weekend should have locked him into the lineup as someone who’s here and ready to play now. I just hope the balance continues to tilt in the direction of skilled players who have potential like Schultz and Goldstein and they don’t end up sitting in the stands for any extended time.
Finishing with one VERY IMPORTANT note from this weekend, the Huskies scored 8 goals on Lowell and won twice without Sikura scoring a goal either night or a recording a point on Saturday. Obviously he was still very much involved in the game and he generated a ton of attention from the defense and a ton of scoring chances, but this weekend just proved that Northeastern can win games against good teams, and win offensive shootouts, without Dylan Sikura taking the game over. That’s big going forward, because at this point, the fact is that nobody outside of perhaps Dylan and the team knows how much more of him we’ll actually be seeing at Northeastern. It was a good weekend, and even though there are still some things to fix, I have to say, I am excited to go into Agganis Arena and face BU. I honestly think we’re better than they are. I am excited for this team. Let’s go.