Playoff Preview- UMass Minutemen

Well, the Huskies did it. After weeks of hand-wringing and constant scoreboard checking, Northeastern earned their spot in the Hockey East playoffs with a victory over Boston University in the regular season finale. The win proved essential as they finished only two points clear of New Hampshire, who missed the playoffs despite winning their season finale. As the #7 seed, they will travel to Amherst to take on the UMass Minutemen, who finished five points behind Boston College for the league title.

Northeastern had been on quite the skid the previous three weeks since losing superstar forward Tyler Madden to an upper extremity injury in the final minute of the first game against UMass-Lowell. Before the final game against BU the Huskies had only won one game since losing Madden, and have still yet to score three goals in a game, going 2-5-0 in the process.

But with the regular season behind them and the postseason ahead, and a fresh feeling of victory reinvigorating them, the Huskies hope to turn their final performance against the Terriers into more fuel to take on the Minutemen. And I must say, even though it has been a rough three weeks for Northeastern, their finale against BU was one of the better games they have played, possibly the best, since the Beanpot championship game.

The Huskies played a near-complete sixty minutes, notching the game’s first goal just before the first period halfway point on the powerplay from stud freshman Aidan McDonough off of excellent puck movement by Grant Jozefek and Ryan Shea. It was McDonough’s first goal since the Beanpot final. The Huskies doubled their lead in the second period when Matt Filipe was in the right place at the right time, potting a rebound generated by a Shea point shot. As someone who has been craving more offense from the point and from slap shots, it was a lovely sight to see. 

BU nearly cut the lead in half before the second period ended, but video review showed the puck was kicked into the net. They then were given a powerplay goal off video review after Patrick Harper rang what appeared to be crossbar and play continued, but video review clearly showed the puck rang the inner post of the net. With the lead cut in half, the Huskies could not solve Tucker in net again, but held on for the 2-1 win. 

It was a gutsy win, pure and simple. I thought the Huskies played very well in all three zones, not getting pinned back by BU for extended periods of time or going without generating offense who minutes/whole periods, as we’ve seen happen the last few weeks. Players were engaged from start to stop, and I noticed far more players outside the scoresheet than I have in recent weeks. Virtual stick taps to Neil SheaMatt DeMelis and Matt Thomson, all of whom had strong games offensively and defensively, and continue to show they will be vital members of the team going forward the next two-to-three seasons. 

Special acknowledgement to the penalty kill, who went 4/5 and held the Terriers to only two shots on goal for the first four powerplays before the Terriers loaded up the third period ahead of Harper’s goal. Against a team as talented as BU, with skilled playmakers like Zegras, Harper, Fensore, Farrance, and Curry all running together, that’s a lethal powerplay, and the Huskies did well to mitigate disaster and keep BU at bay. 

Now the team turns towards an even more skilled and dangerous opponent in UMass. The Minutemen won the season series 2-1, with NU winning the conference opener 3-1 before losing 6-3 and 4-2 in early November. UMass went 5-2 in the final month of play, with victories over Lowell, Providence, and UConn. Recently thought of as an offensive dynamo, they certainly have supported that thinking this season, finishing conference play with a +20 goal differential and a 58.5% Corsi%, the second-best in the nation. Conversely, Northeastern had a -5 goal differential in conference play (thanks, BC), and their Corsi sits at 45.2%, one of the bottom ten marks in the nation.

As expected, UMass’ shot-heavy, goal-heavy style of play leads to some prevalent scoring numbers, and they are led by Hobey Baker Award dark horse John Leonard. The Amherst native leads the country with 27 goals (5 powerplay goals, 10 assists). His scoring is complimented by Mitchell Chaffee (16-13-29) and Bobby Trivigno (9-11-20). UMass also generates a lot of offense from their defense, with Zac Jones (3-20-23, 205 shot attempts), Marc Del Gaizo (4-11-15), and Ty Farmer and Matthew Kessel (11 points, >130 shot attempts each) all contributing. In short, offense comes from all over their line chart, and is pioneered by Leonard, Chaffee, and Trivigno, only two of whom actually play on the same line (Leonard and Trivigno). 

Of course, a good team needs to have good goaltending and UMass has, well, two excellent goaltenders. Matt Murray (.919 save percentage, 1.86 goals-against-average, 20 games played) and Filip Lindberg (.927 SV%, 1.91 GAA, 18 games played) have split time almost evenly and put up identical numbers, meaning coach Greg Carvel has a pair of pocket aces he can throw at opponents any given weekend. Both goaltenders have beaten Northeastern this season, while Murray had the lone loss.

Final Thoughts: Playoff hockey is not meant to be easy. It’s meant to enthrall you, to challenge the players, all while having a semblance of parity and chance for the lower-seeded team. All those tenants ring true for this series between Northeastern and UMass. The contrast in play style will certainly be a storyline, and I would argue it favors UMass to be the more aggressive team rather than Northeastern trying to wear down the Minutemen and suppress their offense.

The teams are fairly even in terms of scoring distribution, with roughly the same number of 20+ point scorers and double-digit goal scorers. Both teams get offense from their defensemen, both teams have had very good-to-excellent goaltending this season, and both teams have a superstar at forward who can take over a game once he hits the ice. The different will come down to a handful of factors:

  1. How healthy is Tyler Madden? If he’s near-100%, Northeastern has every chance in the book to upset the Minutemen. Without him it still can be done, but it will be a tall, tall order.
  2. Which goaltender will blink first? Whoever UMass throws out, we know Northeastern will counter with Craig Pantano, who has been rock-steady all season for the Huskies. Coming off a stellar victory against UMass, the momentum is behind Pantano to continue it into his first playoff game since 2018.
  3. Whose play style will reign supreme? When fully bought in and committed to their styles of play, both teams can be near-unstoppable. Someone will have to break down the other team’s style in order to take the advantage.

This is a series that Northeastern can win, even if they are considered the underdog for a multitude of reasons. Consistency for a full sixty minutes has been an issue all season for the Hounds, but I have confidence that they will rise to the occasion against UMass. It’s been a helluva right this season, one I’m not quite ready to get off of yet, and I’ll bet the Huskies aren’t ready to have it end either.

See you in Amherst. As always, go Huskies!