In their opening weekend of the 2017-18 season, the Northeastern Huskies swept the Sacred Heart Pioneers in non-conference action.
Friday night’s game saw the offensive firepower of the Huskies highlighted, with seven goals scored, each at even strength. The odd part about those seven goals is that none were scored by the usual suspects- Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura, Nolan Stevens, and Garret Cockerill were all held scoreless. Instead, the Huskies received two goals each from Matt Filipe and Grant Jozefek, in addition to single goals from Zach Solow, Lincoln Griffin, and Eric Williams to power themselves to victory. Ryan Ruck saved 19 out of 22 shots (86.4%) to earn the win.
It was a game that was never in any doubt from the Huskies perspective, but it was also a game where the Huskies never seemed to have that “killer instinct,” or the drive to run Sacred Heart into the ground. Coach Madigan voiced his displeasure with how the team played in spite of scoring 7 goals in his post-game press conference, speaking about a lack of discipline and some “selfish” play leading to longer shifts being taken, among other things. From my perspective, it seemed that there were too many drop passes, or passes of a similar soft presentation that were easy to intercept- too many “skill plays” rather than making hard drives to the net with crisp passing.
I also felt that Ruck had an up-and-down game. I thought he played very well the first two periods of the game on Friday, making good positional saves as well as controlling his rebounds when he needed to prevent second chances. He also had a handful of lateral movements to prevent high-scoring goal chances from going in. In the third, however, he let in two goals on the powerplay on six total period shots, and both goals were saves that arguably should have been made. Madigan referenced this in his postgame presser as well. Ruck’s struggles have been documented ad nauseum on this blog, so it was relieving to see him play so well in the early part of the game, but disheartening to see him struggle in the third.
That is not to say there were not bright spots Friday. I thought Zach Solow proved that he belongs at this level and among the top players for Northeastern. His 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) helped carry the offense, and he showed his prowess as a passer, a physical player, and a defensively responsible player. Undrafted in 2017, I expect teams will not pass on him again if he produces well his freshman season. Matt Filipe showed off all his skills in this game, complete with finesse moves, power moves, sharpshooting, and breakaway speed that all leave Huskies and Hurricanes fans drooling in anticipation of his development. Grant Jozefek carried his strong play from the exhibition game over into this weekend. Skating with Solow and Stevens could mean a breakout season is imminent for the talented sophomore.
I also thought the defensemen of the Huskies pushed the puck and generated offense extremely well. Jeremy Davies, Garret Cockerill, Eric Williams, and most notably Trevor Owens all carried the puck through the neutral zone with speed and precision, getting the puck into the offensive zone to either generate shots in transition or to set up the Huskies’ offense. Owens in particular looked faster than I ever recall seeing him in the three previous seasons, looking confident when handling the puck and pushing play forever through the neutral zone. His pass to Filipe for Filipe’s second goal of the night was a beautiful find from below the goal line. The first three defensemen above also all got time on the powerplay, as is expected, and multiple times came into the slot and below the faceoff dot to keep plays alive, with Williams ultimately getting his goal with a shot from below the faceoff dot, ringing it off the crossbar and in.
Last thought on Friday- The Huskies won 58 percent of faceoffs, a number far greater than what they averaged as a team in 2016-17. Adam Gaudette, Zach Solow, Nolan Stevens, and John Picking were all 50 percent successful on draws or better, with Solow the king of the crop, winning 68 percent of his faceoffs. If the Huskies can have newfound success in the faceoff dot, that will bode well for maintaining puck possession and hopefully generating more of this potent offense.
Saturday’s affair with Sacred Heart was even more convincing than Friday’s, with the Huskies earning a 7-0 victory behind two goals from Sikura and Solow as well as 18 saves from a debuting Cayden Primeau.
Primeau looked comfortable from the onset of the game- his positioning all night was solid, his rebound control was better than I expected for a true freshman making his debut, and he did well in handling the chances that came his way. There were not many chances that I would consider especially hard, but he moved well when in the butterfly, tracked the puck well through traffic, and controlled all parts of the net. Primeau looked every bit the goaltender that Huskies fans were told to expect, in my mind had a better performance this weekend than Ryan Ruck, and deserves to start next week at RIT.
The offense clicked early and often this game, potting four goals in the first period for the second straight night. Sikura had the first two, then Filipe picked the corner glove-side, before Jozefek corralled a loose puck and beat the goalie on a breakaway. The final three goals were scored by Solow, Gaudette on the powerplay, and Solow again to round out the scoring. Filipe and Jozefek continued their strong play through three games (two that count), while Sikura (2 goals, 1 assist) and Gaudette (1 goal, 2 assists) made up for their scoreless nights on Friday. Cockerill (3 assists) and Garrett Cecere (1 assist) also recorded their first points of the young season.
In terms of the eye test, this game was a much stronger performance by the Huskies. They controlled play in all three zones, particularly in the neutral and offensive zones. They played with speed and far more precision than they did on Friday- the drop passes and “fancy” plays that I alluded to above were few and far between tonight. The powerplay also got on the board, converting two of their eight opportunities (although three were 41 seconds length or shorter), and the penalty kill succeeded in all four of their chances (three of which lasted shorter than 25 seconds). This was a penalty-laden game, with many of the calls (though not all) earned by the players. There certainly were some questionable calls, in particular the majors on Bobby Hampton and Adam Gaudette, but the team overcame that adversity well.
The final comment on Saturday’s game pertains to injuries. Zach Solow was buried into the boards headfirst by a Pioneer with less than three minutes left in the game, and he was laying on the ice, unmoving, for a good ten seconds or so (felt longer) before moving his legs and eventually skating off under his own power. In a silent Matthews Arena, Coach Madigan could be heard ripping into what sounded like the officials regarding that play. Skating off on his own power is a good sign for Solow, who Madigan said in his postgame presser “He’ll be ok.” After a six-point debut weekend, the Huskies will hope for a fast recovery by their new top center. Matt Filipe also left the game early and was seen icing his leg or knee in the tunnel watching the game conclude. I don’t know exactly when he was injured, but he was fully weight-bearing and was walking around with the ice, so I expect to see him for the RIT weekend.
In all, a very good start for the Huskies to the season. For a team that has been known to start slow, two wins out of the gate has got to be a good feeling. Offensive prowess was the story of the weekend, and I’m sure the coaches will have the special teams and defensive play high on their list of priorities for the week.
Next week the Huskies have one game in Rochester against RIT, being play at Blue Cross Arena as part of RIT’s homecoming. It is very near sold out, so the Huskies will be walking into hostile territory, which I know the team relishes. It will be a matchup out of Atlantic Hockey again, but one that should offer a better level of competition than Sacred Heart. We will have a preview up for that weekend in a few days.
As always, Go Huskies!