Entering the weekend holding the #8 spot in the Hockey East playoffs, Northeastern did just enough to keep it that way, earning a split with Maine by way of a 5-4 overtime win on Friday and a 5-4 regulation loss on Saturday. With 21 points, the Huskies finished in 8th place, one point behind Merrimack and one point ahead of UConn, and as a result they will host the UConn Huskies again this weekend in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament.
Friday night’s game started with a bang, as Maine scored on both of their first two shots of the game and had NU down 2-0 uner 5 minutes in. The Huskies crawled back from there, as Hobey Baker Candidate Zach Aston-Reese scored later in the first to draw Northeastern back within a goal, then in the second period, Aston-Reese and Adam Gaudette scored two power play goals in under a minute to give the Huskies a 3-2 lead entering the final frame. Gaudette and Dylan Sikura both picked up their 50th points of the season in the period, while Gaudette’s power play goal was his 15th such goal of the season, setting a new program record.
Maine would get a goal from Blaine Byron just 47 seconds into the third to tie the game at 3, but it was short lived, as 30 seconds later Gaudette gave the lead back to the Huntington Hounds. It looked like that goal might stand as the difference maker, but with 9 minutes left, Nolan Vesey scored his first of the weekend for Maine and tied the game once more, a score that would last until overtime. Off the opening draw of OT, Aston-Reese got the puck and drove down the right side of the ice, where he found Nolan Stevens trailing him for the game winner just 12 seconds into the extra frame. Northeastern outshot Maine 35-23 on the contest and 1-0 in the brief overtime.
On Saturday night, the Huskies chose to start the game with a hybrid of line of Filipe-Pond-Collier, and it paid off just 18 seconds in as Matt Filipe got the puck behind the Maine net and set up Tanner Pond for his first goal of his senior season. Oddly enough, Pond also scored his first goal of the year in the regular season finale against Maine last year, before adding two more in the playoffs.
The Black Bears responded with their first of four comebacks on the night, as with eight minutes remaining in the period, Nolan Vesey scored his second of the weekend to tie the game heading into the second. Once the second period began, the remainder of the game was decided on special teams. Northeastern struck first on a PPG at 6:18 of the second when Nolan Stevens found Jeremy Davies wide open on the back door, then Maine responded with a PPG of their own at 9:21 in the frame. Dylan Sikura would score next at 12:08 of the period, then Maine came back with Vesey’s third of the weekend, another PPG, with just 28 seconds remaining in the period to level the score at 3-3 after 2.
At the start of the third, it looked like the game was about to turn in the Huskies’ favor. Just 1:10 into the third, Chase Pearson was assessed a major penalty for boarding Adam Gaudette. Off the faceoff, Maine’s Cam Brown broke his stick, resulting in a bigger advantage for the Huskies. In Maine’s panic to get Brown off the ice, the sub came on too early, giving Maine a too many men penalty and the Huskies a full two minute 5 on 3 chance. They converted it, as Nolan Stevens beat Matt Morris and the NU power play continued for another 1:36 of the major penalty.
Then disaster struck. Blaine Byron went on a shorthanded breakaway, where he was hooked by Dylan Sikura and awarded a penalty shot. On the shot, Byron went wide and pulled Ruck way out of his net before putting in the near empty-net opportunity to tie the game. Maine would score again just a minute later, another power play goal, as Nolan Vesey tipped a point shot for a hat trick on the night and four goals on the weekend. The Huskies had 14 minutes to come back, but were unable to do so despite some good scoring chances, and the Black Bears took home a 5-4 victory on senior night.
As hard as it is to play at the Alfond (even Hockey East regular season champion Lowell lost there this season), splitting with 11th place Maine is a bit disappointing, especially when the Huskies went into Saturday just needing a win or tie to lock up 7th place. Even more especially when the offense puts 9 goals in the opposing net and averages 40 shots a game. The Huskies’ defense and goaltending just never got out of the blocks this weekend, allowing 2 goals on 2 shots in the first 5 minutes Friday and ultimately allowing 9 goals on just 47 shots on the weekend. The much-maligned Ryan Ruck wasn’t entirely to blame, as Maine got a number of breakaway, backdoor, and odd-man chances, but he saved just 80 percent on the weekend and played the penalty shot as poorly as a goaltender can, leaving almost the entirety of the net empty. The penalty kill will also need to shore up come playoff time, as they allowed goals on each of their first three chances on Saturday, two of which in the first 25 seconds of the power play.
Thoughts and Musings
– Two facets of the game deserve praise this weekend (beyond all the praise the top six deservedly gets each and every weekend). The first is the fourth line. Pond, Mike Jamieson, and Biagio Lerario were flying all weekend, kept Maine pinned into their own zone constantly, cycled the puck well, and created a number of scoring opportunities by getting themselves and the puck to the net. Lerario has done everything but score in each of his last two games (and in the last 10 seconds of the UConn series), while Jamieson nearly netted a goal and Pond did.
– The second is faceoffs. This weekend, we’ve finally seen a few long awaited changes to the team’s faceoff sructure. Brendan Collier and his 37% faceoffs have finally been taken off the draw in favor of Matt Filipe, who won 14 of 25 draws on the weekend and has now won over 50% on the season, second on the team in percentage to John Stevens. On Saturday, Stevens and Filipe took 40 of the 50 draws that were taken by centers, with Pond taking 5, Gaudette 4, and Collier 1. While the team has been abysmal on draws all year, a situation made worse when Stevens was out, going with Stevens-Gaudette-Filipe-Pond down the middle is the first time all year the Huskies have four centers that could reasonably get hot and win a majority of draws every night, allowing the coaching staff to mix, match, and ride the hot hand. Improvement in that area could make a difference come playoff time.
The Huskies will return to the ice this weekend for their three-game series against UConn, with the winner earning the right to move on and likely play #1 overall seed UMass-Lowell. We’ll have coverage as always, as well as an update on Zach Aston-Reese’s Hobey Baker candidacy coming up later this week. It’s playoff time now, and the Huskies have a title to defend.