With the NCAA Tournament wrapping up last week, the 2020-21 college hockey season has come to a close. With no non-conference games in the regular season, no Beanpot, schedules being made up on the fly, and most of the ECAC not making it to the end of the season, it’s certainly one that will never be repeated. The Huskies finished the regular season at 9-8-3 plus 3 shootout wins, completing their eighth consecutive regular season with a winning record before bowing out on the road in the special edition one-game Hockey East Quarterfinals.
The season started on a high note for the Huskies, despite missing two presumed-star freshmen in Sam Colangelo and Devon Levi for the fall due to extended World Juniors camps. They finally got the season started in mid-December with a resounding weekend, outscoring Merrimack 14-5 over the opening two games of the season and dominating the ice at both ends on their way to 2-0. They won three of their next four to close out 2020 as well, with a shootout win over Providence then a regulation win and a shootout win over Vermont. Meanwhile in Canada, Colangelo picked up his first points in his World Juniors career and Levi was busy backstopping one of the most dominant performances in tournament history, shattering the tournament records for save percentage and GAA en route to being named the top goaltender as both Huskies brought home medals. At this point, the Huskies very much looked the part of a team that would be in the thick of the conversation with the top echelon of Hockey East.
Below the surface though, the cracks were already beginning to form. On top of Colangelo and Levi being away, the Huskies were already missing freshman Steven Agriogianis, who opened the season with 5 points in the first weekend then was injured against Providence and would miss over a month, come back for five games, then miss the remainder of the season. Sophomore Neil Shea was already in and out of the lineup with injuries already as well. The Huskies opened the new year with a pair of games with UMass, where backup-turned-starter Connor Murphy saw UMass score two late goals to steal victory from the jaws of defeat before allowing the first four goals on Saturday. The Huskies got the game back to 4-3 late, but couldn’t complete the comeback themselves, suffering their first sweep of the season.
Next we enter the COVID-affected portion of the season, as the Huskies lost two scheduled games with UConn when the other Huskies abruptly had to pull out, and two games against a home ice contender were replaced with another pair against Merrimack. This was quickly becoming a theme for NU, who had already had scheduled weekends with both BU and BC taken away from them in the first two weeks of 2021. The Huskies swept the Warriors once again and picked up a 7-0 midweek win over UNH to cap it off, but the injury bug was progressing undeterred. Jeremie Bucheler went down in game two of the Merrimack series, missing the majority of the regular season, while Mike Kesselring watched the second Merrimack game from the stands and jumped back into action against UNH to replace him.
But the biggest blow was the revelation that Levi had played the entire World Junior tournament with an undiagnosed cracked rib and would be out indefinitely as a result of the injury. He never dressed for Northeastern in his freshman season. To cap off Northeastern’s very bad week, Head Coach Jim Madigan missed the UNH game as a close-contact to a COVID positive case then days later the team had yet another series with BC cancelled, this time due to positive COVID cases within the team. The Huskies would then miss the next three weekends before recovering to the extent that they were cleared to play.
With the injuries piling up and, from reports, COVID affecting them more than they publicly let on at the time, the Huskies returned in February as, respectfully, a shell of the team they were in December. They took losses to BC and UConn in their first 4 days back then had another game with a contender cancelled, this time due to UMass going on pause. Jayden Struble joined the injury list during the BC game, missing the next two weeks.
The Huskies looked very much the equal of then-#1 BC most of that night, but as the game wore on, two more players left the game with cramps, including goaltender Murphy, leaving Curtis Frye to man the net ahead of former club goalie Nick Scarpa. The Eagles would pull away from the depleted Huskies late. Colangelo joined the injury list after the UConn game, playing in just his fifth collegiate game. He tried to return a few times down the stretch, but would play just two more times in the regular season. As if losing one forward against UConn wasn’t enough, TJ Walsh went down against the Huskies as well, and he would go on to play just two more games in a Huskies uniform.
Nonetheless the remaining NU players continued on, with a sweep of bottom-feeder UNH the following weekend briefly sparking hope. But the next week finally put the nail in the coffin, as the Huskies lost Jordan Harris to injury during the week then suffered a bad loss to UMass-Lowell on Friday while barely being able to control the puck. They won on Saturday, but once again with a cost, as the newly-returned Agriogianis exited for the remainder of the season and Tyler Spott joined him in the stands for the rest of the regular season. Now thoroughly beaten, the Huskies were dominated in their remaining games, with a loss to Providence before stealing a shootout win on night 2 followed by resounding losses to BC to end the regular season and UMass to end their playoff run in the very first game. After the season ended we got one final bout of injury news, as the team revealed that in addition to all of the previously disclosed injuries, Frye tore his MCL to bring an end to his collegiate career and both Matt DeMelis and Aidan McDonough hadn’t practice for weeks while barely playing through injuries of their own.
It is unfortunate in so many ways that the season played out how it did, but nonetheless it happened and it was a situation that any team would have succumbed to. All teams grow and change over the season, but based on the Huskies’ early season showings not only in their wins but in their early losses to teams the likes of UMass, I genuinely believe they were destined to become a player in the top tier of Hockey East. In their COVID-return game against BC, they were skating stride for stride with the Eagles before injuries collapsed their gameplan in the third.
This is a team that had potential, having developed Zach Solow into a top three scorer in Hockey East, had their powerplay driven masterfully by Harris with McDonough on the other side ready to one-time pucks home, and placed together one of the best all-freshman lines we’ve seen with Ty Jackson, Dylan Jackson, and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine becoming inarguably their top line. Those six alone could stand toe-to-toe with anyone for all-conference honors, and did, with four of the six receiving conference honors for their season. The talent was there, and the talent still is there. Throw in a star goalie and a second round pick whose season never even got off the launch pad and who knows what could have happened.
Instead, it’s a long offseason for the Huskies, who turn the calendar to the Icebreaker tournament in Worcester to open the 2021-22 campaign. At forward they lose Solow, Grant Jozefek, and Austin Goldstein to graduation, while TJ Walsh and Neil Shea will move on to other opportunities. They’ll be replaced by grad transfer Jakov Novak, U18 nationals Jack Hughes and Ryan St. Louis, and proven USHL scorers Justin Hryckowian and Matt Choupani, just among those who have already signed. On defense everybody who dresses last season is back except Mike Kesselring, who will also be replaced by a grad transfer in Tommy Miller. And in goal the Huskies lose everyone who saw ice time last year, with Levi finally taking his place between the pipes, to be backed up by TJ Semptimphelter. We expect NU to be active in the transfer market for another qualified backup as well.
While losing Solow hurts, by all accounts that roster has the look of a team that should be an improvement from last year’s version, bolstered heavily by the coup NU pulled off when they got Jordan Harris to return for his senior year as captain of the Huskies. You never know until the puck is down, but from this vantage point, this may be the strongest group NU has assembled since the 2017-18 dream team led by All-Americans Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura, Nolan Stevens, Jeremy Davies, and Cayden Primeau. Only time will tell, and the wait until October and until we can finally step foot in Matthews for the first time in nearly two years seems longer than ever.