After a semester of close wins and come-from-behind heroics, the other shoe finally dropped for Northeastern this weekend, as a shorthanded team playing without Tyler Madden, Cayden Primeau, or Associate Head Coach Jerry Keefe fell 1-0 to Merrimack College at Matthews Arena. Craig Pantano made 42 saves in a shutout effort of the Huskies, his fourth shutout victory of the year. In a season where Merrimack only has 5 wins as a team, Pantano has won all 5 games while allowing one single goal for a 0.20 GAA and a .994 save percentage. Yes, .994. One goal on 171 shots. Nine. Ninety. Four. The average Merrimack win is a Craig Pantano 34 save shutout.
Northeastern came out a little slower than they did last time Merrimack came to Matthews, but still put up a big shots on goal advantage in the first frame, having put up 17 shots on goal before the horn ended the period. In the second, Merrimack got some pressure, but NU still put up an 11-6 shot advantage for a game total of 28-16. Admittedly, not many of the shots were of the variety I would call “super threatening”, but Pantano was spraying rebounds left and right and NU just wasn’t getting to them, so it’s hard to say that continuing to get the puck to bounce off him was a bad strategy. Merrimack had a few runs where they controlled play, but nothing (other than the knowledge that Cayden Primeau was half a continent away) was particularly scary in the Northeastern end. A similar MC mini-run started the third, but the goal came on a play the whole team will want back. NU had taken back control of play a bit but iced the puck unnecessarily, setting up a faceoff in front of Ruck. The Huskies won the draw, but Chase Gresock stole the puck and shot it along the ice and between the legs of Ruck. Three mistakes and a bit of bad luck combine for a decisive goal.
To their credit, NU responded to the goal extremely well. Seemingly waking up for the first time all game, NU spent the next 10 minutes with the puck in the Merrimack zone, firing puck after puck and deflection after deflection at Pantano. They hit some more goalposts, totaling three on the night. They had the puck cleared from behind Pantano multiple times. They had a shot go behind Pantano untouched and go out the other side of the crease. But the puck never found the inside of the net, and a 14 save third period completed a 42 save shutout.
Look, hockey is hockey. I’ve seen Bryan Mountain put up a 50 save shutout of a then-good UNH. I’ve seen Jake Theut shut out Notre Dame. I’ve seen John Micheletto-era UMass take Notre Dame to 5 20-minute overtimes while getting heavily outshot the entire time. Things happen. But this one stings. Northeastern didn’t play their greatest game in history and you could successfully argue that they didn’t turn it on until their backs were against the wall, and that 10 minutes of good play does not a victory make. But the shots they did put on the net probably should have been enough. Merrimack was playing with 5 defensemen due to injury and was without their only threat on defense, Jonathan Kovacevic. This isn’t a loss that should have happened, and the Pairwise agreed, dropping Northeastern all the way from 9th to 14th for their subpar effort. They were ranked 12th in this week’s USCHO poll, but the Pairwise is the ranking system that matters.
Having said that, if you look at the entire season rather than just this game in a vacuum, this loss was coming. In spite of their record, Northeastern has been playing with fire. They’ve won more games after trailing late this season than most players win in their entire time in school. They just came out last weekend against a couple of similarly-bad teams and needed Jeremy Davies and Zach Solow to bail them out with a miracle play in OT on Friday before putting in an underwhelming effort again on Saturday. They played with fire, they got burned, and now they have to move forward. The only way to fix what happened on Saturday is to go in and beat teams like UMass and PC to get their Pairwise back up, and to not falter against the weaker teams they may see later in the season either. Any cushion that existed has evaporated. Even this Maine weekend suddenly looks like a weekend where you need to find 3 points, if not 4, which isn’t exactly a given going into Orono as a team that just lost to Merrimack.
There has been a lot of chatter in recent years that Jerry Keefe is, as Jim Madigan would say, “the straw that stirs the drink” for Northeastern. Northeastern seems to agree, as they’ve worked hard to keep him away from jobs like Merrimack and BU and rewarded him with new contracts for his efforts. The games played these last two weekends were nothing short of a complete and total verification of Keefe’s impact on the Northeastern program, in my opinion. Keefe has been the top assistant at Northeastern since the exit of Pat Foley in 2014-15 and I’ve seen NU play a lot of games both before and after that coaching change. The last two weeks looked decidedly like the former teams, not the latter ones we’ve become accustomed to. While watching the game on Saturday, I must have asked myself 10 times how one coach leaving for two weeks causes the entire team to forget everything he taught them. Hopefully the return of Keefe (and the players he had with him) and the pain of both the failures against both Merrimack and Finland light a fire underneath the entire locker room, because it’s go-time now. Every week that passes is one week closer to the end of the season, in a conference that Northeastern would have been alone on top of if they had just beaten Merrimack.
They did not.
They would have been 8th in the Pairwise with a win. They’re 14th now. I sincerely hope I’m not back here in two months writing about how one game on January 5th completely changed Northeastern’s season and kept them from what they could have been, but in a year where Hockey East is weaker than ever and you need to take every chance that’s put in front of you, the damage of this weekend may well end up critical. There’s only one path forward now.
Go beat Maine.