The 2020-21 season was always going to be a strange one. Starting while the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, but with hope in sight, Hockey East delayed the start of the season and made it a conference-only slate to minimize travel and external exposures.
Well, two pauses and 17 games later, the Huskies have arrived here, at the end of February, with still questions left unanswered. What we do know: every Hockey East team will make the playoff. The top 5 seeds get a bye, with the top 4 having home ice. Single game series for all four rounds of the playoffs, played at the higher seed’s rink. And right now, the Huskies place 6th in that seeding, with the gap between them and 7th place larger than the gap between them and 4th.
When looking at the season as a whole, that’s right where they belong. Northeastern sits 9-6-2, with two wins in a shootout for extra Hockey East points coming in those two ties. Of their 9 wins, exactly zero have come against the teams seated higher than them (BC, BU, UMass, UConn, PC). Whereas of their six losses and two ties, only one loss (Lowell) and one tie (Vermont) come from teams ranked lower.
So, Northeastern has capitalized this year when playing the lower-ranked teams, but have struggled when stepping up against higher-ranked teams. They have not even gotten a chance to play Boston University this year (which we don’t think has ever happened before in a Hockey East season), and their only point against the Top 5 is a shootout win against Providence.
It’s not a matter of fault, blame, or ability. This Huskies’ team is supremely talented, and there have been those flashes of brilliance all year. Senior captain Zach Solow paces the team with 19 points, one shy of 100 for his brilliant career. Jordan Harris is also a point-per-game player with 16 points in 15 games, and should return from injury this weekend. Aidan McDonough’s recent breakout has propelled him to the team lead in goals (9). Riley Hughes has developed more this year with 9 points (6 goals, many of them timely) in 17 games. Tyler Spott, Jayden Struble, and Mike Kesselring are all half a point per game or better from the blue line.
And to top it all off, the freshmen have been electric. The Jackson twins have been as advertised, with 13 points (Dylan) and 11 (Ty) in all 17 games, while Gunnarwolfe Fontaine has drawn Kevin Roy comparisons for his 13 points in 17 games. Steve Agriogianis exploded opening weekend and has quieted on the scoresheet but is one of the team’s best faceoff players, and heralded freshman Sam Colangelo has started to come alive with 3 assists in his last five games.
In goal, phenom freshman Devon Levi has been sidelined with a rib injury ever since returning from Team Canada’s silver medal effort at World Juniors, so sophomore Connor Murphy has answered the bell admirably, with a .915 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against-average, squarely in the upper half of the conference. Outside of three games against UMass and Boston College he has been remarkably consistent for the Huskies. He’s not Cayden Primeau, he’s not Craig Pantano, but he’s doing everything he can every night to keep the Huskies in games.
So what gives? The short answer is we don’t really know. Execution of the systems and gameplan will be the most common answer given if the coaches are asked. Consistency may get thrown in there too if you open the floor to more observers. The powerplay has clicked at 28% success rate, another dominant year for Coach Keefe’s unit, sitting third nationally. The penalty kill has been ranging from 11th to 20th all year, and currently sits 18th (5th in Hockey East). That’s good enough to get the job done most of the time.
With two seasons left in the season, and at least two more chances to beat a team ahead of them, the Huskies need to start their playoff mentality NOW. Two against Providence this weekend is a great start, considering the Friars have been arguably the most consistently maddening team for Northeastern the last 9 seasons. If the playoffs started now, the Huskies would play against Vermont for one game for the honor of playing UMass, another thorn in the Huskies’ side recently. So the Hounds need to treat these Providence games as “can’t lose” options, because racking up some quality wins this late in the year may yet still alter the standings enough to earn them a first-round bye.
2021 has proven to be a year driven by hope and progress so far for the world as we start to see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. With playoffs around the corner, here’s to that hope and progress extending to Matthews Arena and Huntington Avenue as the Huskies head into the playoffs.
As always, go Huskies!