As winter break is in full swing and the team itself returns to Boston to prepare for the back half of the season, let’s take a moment to reflect on what was an impressive first half for the Northeastern men’s ice hockey team. The Huskies are technically tied for third in Hockey East, although if you sort the teams by points per game rather than just points they jump into 2nd place outright. This position, combined with a 10-3-1 record overall and a signature non-conference win over #1 St. Cloud State, has NU ranked in both national polls and 13th in the Pairwise, a position that would get them into the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.
The 10 wins in just 14 games are themselves a milestone. NU did get to 10 wins in the first half last season, but needed 16 games to do so. Likewise, they took 17 first half games to reach the 10 win mark in 2013-14. The only other start the Huskies have had in the modern era that really matches this one is 2008-09, where the Huskies got as high as #2 in the national rankings behind Hobey Hat Trick goaltender Brad Thiessen.
So how did we get here? It started with a team that was, to embellish slightly, left for dead at the start of the season. Quite frankly, it may have been the worst prediction ever given to a team that returned both a star goaltender and an All-American defenseman. Yeah, sure, they lost the Big Three and nobody on Huntington Ave is going to forget the name Adam Gaudette anytime soon, but they didn’t exactly return from summer vacation to a bare cupboard. There was a lot of talent, drafted talent at that, waiting to be utilized for another run. But anybody could have seen that coming in, so what has actually made the difference?
The biggest reason is Tyler Madden. Madden was a third round pick in the NHL Draft, but came in at a mere 150 pounds as Canucks fans across the internet yelled into the void lamenting that their team would dare choose the Northeastern centerman over the all-world BU freshman Jake Wise. Madden is somebody who NU fans expected would contribute, but coming in as a first-semester freshman and doing what Madden has is insane.
Here’s a comparison for you. This is the stat line for the first half of Adam Gaudette’s freshman season. The comparison here is Tyler Madden against a future Hobey Baker Award Winner in a season where Gaudette would help NU win a Hockey East Championship.
Gaudette: 3-2-5 in 18 games played
Madden: 6-9-15 in 14 games played
Tyler Madden producing over a point per game as a first line, all-situation centerman as a 150 pounds-soaking-wet true freshman in Hockey East is basically unprecedented by people who aren’t named Jack Eichel or Johnny Gaudreau. It’s not something that’s supposed to happen. But Madden is doing it, and that’s the reason he’s in Vancouver right now skating on the first line of the US National Under-20 Team instead of back with his teammates in Boston. He leads Hockey East freshmen in basically any scoring category you can think of on a per game basis. He’s second nationally among freshmen in goals per game and third in points per game. Everybody at NU knew Madden was going to be good, but nobody outside of Huntington Ave (or maybe even inside) had him pencilled in as possibly the best freshman in the country. He’s replaced Adam Gaudette, ADAM GAUDETTE, and hardly even missed a beat. That’s just unfathomable.
Not to be lost in the Madden hype is another diminutive forward making the most of increased opportunity: Grant Jozefek. His NU career started with what could only be described as a nightmare, he took big hit after big hit and suffered concussion after concussion as a freshman. Then he sat behind the Big Three as a sophomore, taking whatever scraps of power play time they left behind. This year, Jozefek finally has both the health and the opportunity and has emerged as one of the best players in the country. He’s seventh nationally in goal scoring, and ranks second in the junior class nationally and second in Hockey East. Once again, everybody on Huntington Ave had seen flashes of what Grant Jozefek could do with a hockey stick. But did anybody else think he was a 10-goal-a-semester scorer? Absolutely not.
I could keep going with this. Zach Solow is a former USHL assist master, who piled up point after point after point while everybody asked if we should be crediting him or his linemates. Solow now has 9 goals in 14 games. We here at the blog have been on the “Zach Solow needs to shoot more, just like Dylan Sikura” train for a year now. I know the NU coaching staff has been too. Guess what? It’s a new year, he’s shooting, and it’s working.
Patrick Schule, a player who wasn’t even seen as a guarantee to play every night coming into the year, has six goals. Jordan Harris is a true freshman defenseman playing first line minutes straight out of prep and doing so literally better than anybody could dream. In fact, 15 of the 17 NU skaters who have reached double-digit games played have a goal this season. The only ones who don’t are defensive wizard Ryan Shea and perennial 13th forward Eetu Selanne. The question everybody wanted answered coming into the year was “Who will step up for Northeastern?” The question they should be asking now is “Who hasn’t?”
So what does all of this mean going forward? NU has, in all honestly, had a pretty soft schedule to start the year. Aside from the win over St. Cloud (which shouldn’t be discounted) their best opponent was Union, who swept them out of Matthews. So there’s still some question as to whether they can do it against top competition. In Hockey East play, they’ve decimated Merrimack and swept a deceptively-solid-but-freshman-packed Lowell team, but they’re also untested, with no games yet this year against the remainder of the top four (PC, UMass, and BC) and also having yet to play their bi-annual two game series in Orono. So as many questions as have been answered, a lot more are going to get answered in short order. After they get through a… weak… Catamount Cup field and go through Merrimack one more time, the schedule is:
at Maine x2
Beanpot (vs BU, BC/H)
That is a hell of a four week stretch of games, and we’re going to learn a lot about this team very quickly. 5 of the most difficult 8 games NU will play all year (by current Pairwise) will all occur back-to-back between the middle of the January and the start of the Beanpot, and again, the other two games in that stretch will take place in Orono. The going is about to get tough, but if there’s one thing a 10-win fall has taught us, these Huskies are here to make an impact.
We’ll be back later this week with a Catamount Cup Preview, and make sure you follow Jerry Keefe, Tyler Madden, Cayden Primeau, and Team USA at the World Junior Championship, which kicks off on Wednesday Night on NHL Network.