In their opening game for the 2016-17 Hockey East schedule, Northeastern fell to Vermont by a score of 3-2. Craig Puffer scored the game-winning goal for the Catamounts with just over 5 minutes to go, streaking past the defense alone and beating goaltender Ryan Ruck through his legs. It was a game that started off on a major high note for the Huskies as they scored goals on each of their first 2 shots, both in highlight-reel fashion from Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura. Sikura’s goal would garner recognition on Sportcenter’s Twitter feed later in the evening, it was so good. After that, it was a fairly even game, with Vermont chipping away at the Huskies with goals in each period, including one powerplay goal. Vermont goaltender Stefanos Lekkas finished with 24 saves, while Ruck finished with 26 of his own.
Commentary on the game, from two of the bloggers:
Davis: This was a bad loss. No two ways about it. NU came out hot and their top two playmakers, Gaudette and Sikura, put up goals that made it feel like it was NHL 17 out there. But the rest of the game was very even, probably skewed a little towards Vermont. NU saw nearly 2/3 of their shot attempts get blocked or go wide, according to Madigan in his post-game presser, and that resulted in a season low in SOG. Vermont did a good job on the forecheck and pressuring NU. I thought Ruck let in two real soft goals (both of Puffer’s), which just cannot happen if NU is going to be competitive moving forward in Hockey East. I also felt Cockerill had a rough game, not only getting burnt on the GWG but he has just seemed off all year, not as crisp with his passing or getting his shot through. Proud and happy he got an A on his sweater for the game but he needs to pick his play up, as an upperclassman and as someone who is given the keys to run this offense from the blue line out.
Look, not having the Stevens brothers hurt NU. Hopefully John will be back soon, Nolan we have learned will be out for an extended period of time. But I maintain that forward is not the issue with this NU team. Even with those injuries, NU rolled out two solid lines and a decent third; the talent is there up front. The team will go as far as the defense and goaltending will take them, and right now Ruck is sitting at a .904 SV%, which is subpar for a Hockey East goaltender. Going into the teeth of the Hockey East slate, with BU/ND/PC/BC all looming in their next 8 games, Northeastern will need Ruck to step up in a big way, and the defense to tighten up even more, if they expect to garner any points going into December.
The team effort in the Vermont game was generally good. Alhough the Huskies came out strong, the first period was marred by penalty after penalty after penalty, the majority of which (the first three penalties in a row and four of the six first period penalties) were called against Northeastern. This prevented either side from getting much momentum or from developing an identity, and led to a first intermission where the Huskies led 2-1 despite being heavily outshot. I thought Northeastern was the better team for the remainder of the game, outshooting the Catamounts 20-16 over the remaining two periods despite their difficulties actually hitting the net with the puck. Once the team gets back a key piece in John Stevens and a solid contributor in Patrick Schule, both of whom should return within the next two weekends, they’ll have a solid lineup even without Nolan Stevens or the still-anticipated Liam Pecararo.
However, although the Huskies were still the better team on Sunday in my eyes, it’s become clear that they didn’t play well enough and that they weren’t quite ready for the quality of competition that Vermont brought after back to back weekends against Bentley and ASU while the Catamounts had played Omaha and Michigan. Garret Cockerill was a disaster on the blue line and this isn’t the first game this season where he’s played badly. Cockerill was a solid piece of the defense last year and his newfound struggles, while somewhat explained by his rise up to the first defensive pairing, are surprising. Matt Benning’s turnaround from the start of last year to the end were well documented and hopefully Cockerill follows the same path back to the top, because defense wins championships, as the Huskies found out last year when they set the school GAA record and won their first hardware in 28 years.
All eyes have to fall past Cockerill and onto one man, though, goaltender Ryan Ruck. Ruck allowd two very soft goals to Craig Puffer on Sunday and was one of the largest reasons, if not the largest reason, that a game that could have been a win turned into a loss. Ruck showed some flashes of brilliance last spring as the Huskies dominated their weak January and February schedules, but he’s been well below average since. Since March 1st last year, Ruck has played in 14 games and posted a save percentage of just .894. (Thanks to @BurntBoats on Twitter for that #fancystat.) The Huskies won the Hockey East title last year on the back of their offense after Ruck allowed 5 goals against an anemic Maine offense in the Hockey East First Round, 5 more to Notre Dame including a 6-4 Huskies victory, 4 more to BC in a 5-4 win, 2 to Lowell including a very soft John Edwardh goal in the first, and 6 more to North Dakota as the Huskies were eliminated. In the new year, he’s allowed another small pile of goals, including 7 goals over two weekends to very bad ASU and Bentley teams, 7 goals in one weekend to Quinnipiac, and two very soft goals in the 3-2 loss Sunday. As Huskies fans are well aware from their time with Chris Rawlings and the brief experiment with Derick Roy, teams go as far as their goaltending can take them. Even a decent goalie who allows bad goals at even worse times (Rawlings, Chris) will fail. Ryan Ruck needs to step up and become at least a league average goaltender if the Huskies are to have any chance at becoming a top four team in Hockey East, and there are very serious questions whether he is capable of doing that.