As we turn the calendar into January, it’s safe to say that the first semester of Jerry Keefe’s official era at the helm of the Huskies has been nothing if not eventful.
First thing’s first, the Huskies have 13 wins and led Hockey East after they played their last game in December, although they have been passed by two points while they were on break. Let’s take a look at how they got there.
A fairly uneventful game is the perfect thing you could ask for when you open the season against an Atlantic Hockey opponent, and NU started off with a double dose of exactly that. Devon Levi picked up his first collegiate shutout and Aidan McDonough scored his first two goals (foreshadowing on both counts) as the Huskies cruised to a 4-0 victory over Bentley, sending the packed crowd at Matthews home happy after their first attended game since spring 2020. Northeastern next turned to two scheduled games with Holy Cross and Quinnipiac at the DCU Center in Worcester, while BC played the opposite rotation. The Huskies replicated their opening night performance against the Crusaders, as McDonough scored the first goal and it was the only one needed, as Levi saved every shot he faced for the second game in a row and NU skated to a 3-0 win.
On Saturday at the Icebreaker, the Bobcats posed a much bigger challenge and it turned out to be one NU wasn’t prepared to face. Quinnipiac scored a minute into the game against an understaffed NU defense corps and NU never really had a pulse or showed any signs of a comeback as they would only get 19 shots off in a 3-0 shutout loss. This was disappointing at the time, though it should be noted that QU has turned into one of the top ranked teams in the country and is the standout atop the ECAC. Next up the Huskies took a trip to their personal house of horrors, Conte Forum, and it lived up to the hype. NU took a 2-1 lead early on 2 McDonough goals but their defense woes continued as BC scored the next 4 goals unanswered en route to a 5-3 win. The Huskies followed up the next weekend with a nerve-wracking but uneventful 1-0 win over Colorado College thanks to Levi and Jack Hughes before the defense faltered once again in a demoralizing 5-3 Tuesday home loss to UConn.
Early recap: NU took care of business against the non-conference teams it had to win against (which is more than the rest of Hockey East can say) and only lost to a very good Quinnipiac team. Devon Levi came out very much as advertised, if not better, with 3 shutouts in his first 5 collegiate games and none of the losses were on his shoulders either. The Huskies were inconsistent at scoring goals for anyone other than McDonough though and had an abysmal power play that had gone completely cold. That combined with the defensemen jumping in and out of the lineup and the lack of support in front of the net defensively contributed heavily to their Hockey East struggles and their 0-2 conference start.
From that point on the Huskies caught fire, with a pair of wins over Maine (led in part by Jayden Struble‘s miraculous game-winning goal from center ice on Saturday) and a second consecutive weekend sweep over UNH to bring NU to 12 Hockey East points. A mid-week home overtime win over the young and talented Harvard Crimson came thanks to a perfect major penalty kill and a Gunnarwolfe Fontaine OT winner, but was followed by a disappointing OT loss to Lowell where NU blew a late 1-0 lead. Those games took their toll, as NU lost forwards Sam Colangelo, Riley Hughes, Ty Jackson, and Dylan Jackson due to injury over that stretch entering a crucial conference faceoff with rival Boston University. Despite being shorthanded, the Huskies fought back against the Terriers to the tune of a 1-0 OT win on Friday thanks to 38 Levi saves and the stick of McDonough. On Saturday the teams tied 2-2 after regulation and it was again up to Levi, who made 9 saves in the shootout before Jack Hughes finally sent the Huskies home with another win.
The shorthanded Huskies continued putting together their best run of the season while missing many of their top forwards, with a pair of 2-1 wins in a Thanksgiving home-and-home with RPI (where they lost freshman sensation forward Justin Hryckowian for good measure) followed by an astounding sweep of #13 Providence, with a 2-0 win on the road Friday giving Levi the single-season program shutout record in just one semester of work followed by a 4-1 win on Saturday giving NU an unlikely and rare sweep of the Friars. With their fourth conference sweep in six weekends the Huskies took their place atop the conference standings and looked forward to a trip to Switzerland to represent the red, white, and blue at the World University Games over the winter break.
McDonough and Levi are undoubtedly the highlights of the first half, with 13 goals scored and a .955 save percentage/6 shutouts respectively. But the highlights go beyond that, and include Hryckowian stepping up as a freshman and dominating the faceoff dot even when thrust into action as the Huskies’ #1 center, Jack Hughes with 5 goals including multiple game-winners in a semester where he was 17 years old for the majority of it, Jakov Novak making an impact alongside Hughes as a transfer, and Matt Choupani joining the list of freshmen with scoring touch. But it’s the defense that really stepped up for NU after the pains of October, and the veteran stable of Struble, Jordan Harris, Tommy Miller, Julian Kislin, Jeremie Bucheler, and Tyler Spott are an impact starting six who have shown the ability to shut down the best of college hockey. They aren’t the flashiest or the most well-known group outside of Harris, but they’ve been downright effective and have been the keys to the Huskies so far. The coaching staff deserves credit as well, Keefe, Mike Levine, Mike McLaughlin, Mike Condon, and Mike Jamieson have had the team ready in the face of adversity and had their depth forwards ready to step up and contribute to the Huskies’ success when their names were called upon. One last player we noticed a lot of was Alex Mella, who started the season in the stands and has looked the part and been a productive member on the team whenever his number was called, whether that be as the thirteenth forward or on a brief stint in the top six where he picked up two points and honestly was unlucky to not have more.
As we head into January, we now know that the Switzerland trip as Team USA would never come, thanks to the games being cancelled amidst new virus restrictions, throwing a second wrench into Northeastern’s season. A growing number of delayed and cancelled games across the sporting world combined with the threat of a five-week quarantine in China has likewise stopped the NHL players from participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics, threatening a third wrench, as Huskies Levi, McDonough, and Harris all look like reasonable candidates to join their countries from the amateur ranks instead. If that happens the players would likely leave at the end of January, missing the Beanpot as well as Hockey East series’ against Lowell and Boston College. Let’s be clear – this would be a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity for the players to represent their countries on the biggest stage and it’s one that nobody will begrudge them for accepting if they are offered – we will happily be rooting them on from our TV screens and on the internet if that does turn out to be the case. But there is no debate that the games and potential absences couldn’t come at a worse moment in Northeastern’s season, just as they’re set to face off against two of their top three opponents in Hockey East and in college hockey’s signature midseason tournament.
That is a bridge to be crossed when we get to it though. In the meantime the Huskies return to action this weekend with three home games against college hockey’s two independent teams, a home weekend with newcomer Long Island University and a newly-added midweek home game against Arizona State. NU should finally get significant forward reinforcements for these ones and will be looking to continue their hot streak despite a long month waiting to get back on the ice. LIU played hockey over the break including two games last weekend against Ohio State, so they will be ready and willing to take it to the Huskies, who have to be locked in and focused from the opening puck drop. The Sun Devils are no slouch either with 5 wins over ECAC teams and a 3-1 record against Hockey East entering this weekend.
In an ideal second half the Huskies will use their month of power play tinkering and the return of their scorers to complement the success that the defensive structure and the red-hot Levi brought them in the first half, continue to build on the 13 wins they already have, and turn into an all-around force to be reckoned with on the national level. But that is easier said than done of course. For now they’ll proceed one game at a time and ramp back into the season after these three games with a pair in Vermont followed by a much-anticipated matchup between the Huskies and the defending champions out in Amherst. We’re looking forward to seeing what the second semester has in store.
Oh yeah, and we’re also looking forward to seeing these beauties on the ice.