SOUTHBURY, CT — Northeastern’s 2016 calendar year saw a historic run to end the regular season, the Hockey East title return to Huntington Avenue for the first time since 1988, and a lackluster start to the title defense. As the year draws to a close, the Huskies will have one final game to play against the Clarkson Golden Knights on December 30.
Looking at the Hockey East standings, Northeastern sits with the second-fewest points (tied with Providence), with 13 conference games to play in 2017, roughly the same as other teams. The Huskies will need to put in serious work again in the second half in order to secure a home series in the conference Octo-finals. From where this writer stands, a first-round bye, predicted by many in the preseason, is unlikely. Luckily for Northeastern, only 6 of their conference games in 2017 are against conference foes currently with a .500 record or better, with UConn being exactly .500 (6 wins, losses, and ties each).
With an eye towards that 2017 stretch, here are four big storylines/factors that will impact the Huskies the second half of the season.
1. Goaltending: Ryan Ruck’s struggles this season have been well documented on this blog and by this writer. This season, Ruck’s overall save percentage is 88.6%, and sits at 87.3% in Hockey East play. He is slightly better when at even strength, with an 89.3% EvSV%, but that is still well below what an average Hockey East goaltender should be posting. In fact, his save percentage is the only one that is sub-90% of goalies who have played 40% of their teams’ minutes or more. This year, Ruck has posted sub-90% save percentages both in home and away games, as well as against NCAA Tournament teams from last season. The only demographic against which he has posted a SV% about 90% is against teams that did not make the tournament last season. This may be a harbinger of good things in 2017, where only 4 NU games will be against 2016 tournament teams. Regardless of opponent, for NU to have any hope of a deep playoff run, Ruck will need to morph into a 90+ SV% goalie on a consistent basis- something he has struggled to do while on Huntington Ave.
2. Scoring Depth: In short, it is near non-existent. The Huskies’ offense has been driven by the outstanding seasons of Zach Aston-Reese, Dylan Sikura, and Adam Gaudette. The three forwards have 29, 27, and 22 points, respectively, all well over a point per game, with ZAR and Sikura hovering near 1.5 points per game. Garret Cockerill has chipped in 14 points in 17 games, and John Stevens has been a point per game player this year even with missing 6 games. Stevens has 10 points in 11 games. The next highest total by a forward is Brendan Collier’s 6.
Nolan Stevens, having missed 11 games, has as many points this season as Lincoln Griffin and Matt Filipe, both of whom have played every game. Grant Jozefek got hurt early, but has not seen the ice since the Boston University series.It cannot be understated how atrocious the Huskies’ depth has been. Griffin and Filipe in particular have been disappointing. Griffin played in all 40 games last season for the Huskies, and Jim Madigan has lauded Griffin’s skills and mentioned how he expects Griffin to be an important player for the Huskies for years to come. Griffin has not scored since playing Arizona State, and has only posted 11 shots on goal since October 22 even though he gets top 6 minutes frequently.
Matt Filipe came in as a third round draft pick, the highest at NU since Jamie Oleksiak in 2011. Heralded as a power forward, Filipe has gotten time up and down the top 3 Huskies lines, and has put up 22 shots in 17 games. He has recorded only a single point since the first BU game, and has not scored a goal since Arizona State. For such a highly regarded prospect, we expected more of an impact from Filipe. There is silver lining in that he took a while to get going while in the USHL last season, so we hope that having time to get acclimated to the NCAA pace will see Filipe pick up his production in 2017.
3. The Return of Nolan Stevens: Injured during practice before the Vermont game, Nolan Stevens should return to the Huskies by the Beanpot tournament. His absence has been somewhat disguised by the success of linemate Zach Aston-Reese and classmate Dylan Sikura. However, the return of a 20-goal scorer from a year ago will provide a critical jolt to the Huskies’ offense, as well as a player who helps control the pace of play along the boards, eats up minutes of ice time, and plays on both the powerplay and penalty kill. Stevens will slide back into his top line spot alongside ZAR and brother John Stevens. While Stevens, like ZAR, earns much of his living by being strong between the faceoff dots, he also provides another lethal shot in Jim Madigan’s forward arsenal. See evidence below:
— Northeastern MHKY (@GoNUmhockey) March 25, 2016
4. The Debut of Liam Pecararo: A former Maine Black Bear, Pecararo left Orono after three-quarters of a season and played a year in the USHL before committing to the Huskies. After having to sit out the first half due to issues transferring his academics to the University, Pecararo will suit up for his first game against Clarkson. While it may take a few games to wear off the rink rust, Pecararo is a “gifted offensive player whose creativity and ability to generate offense with his hands and vision will certainly be an asset to the Huskies in the second half,” and his addition should help the Huskies’ scoring depth issues.
The Huskies are in position to rack up some points and climb the standings in the second half of the season. They have many factors working in their favor, including their schedule and the addition of multiple prolific offensive players to their lineup. However, the lack of scoring depth and the lack of quality goaltending are crippling for the team’s postseason hopes. If only one of them can be fixed, it needs to be the goaltending; the Huskies will not win another trophy if their goalie is posting sub-90% save percentages on a routine basis.
The second half kicks off against Clarkson, goes through Yale, and returns to Hockey East play with Vermont on January 7. These three games will be measuring sticks to see what kind of adjustments Jim Madigan and his staff made over break to steer the team in the right direction. We will have content continuing through the second half. As always, Go Huskies!