As the Christmas holiday fast approaches and the calendar gets set to turn to 2024, the Northeastern Men’s Hockey program sits with a 5-8-1 record overall, 1-8 in conference play, and look ahead to their next game against Minnesota-Duluth as part of the first-ever KiwkTrip Holiday Faceoff in Milwaukee on December 28th. Ahead of that game kicking off the second semester, let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of the first half.
- That win at Conte Forum over then-number one Boston College is one that’s going to be talked about for a long time. The third win over a team ranked Number One in the last eleven years, and first time since 2019, it was a game that had improbable heroes (Braden Doyle and Matt Staudacher scoring their first goals of the year), profound disappointment (Northeastern blowing a 3-0 lead in ten minutes in the second), and a Hero’s Emergence where Cam Lund once again proved to be the kryptonite for BC, scoring his second career hat trick against the Eagles to knock them off their perch and give Northeastern its first conference win of the year. A game that absolutely should be seen as a momentum boost and turning point, as well as displaying the emergence of Cam Lund as an all-everything level player, it showed the ceiling of this team after two months of frustration.
- Scoring nine goals against RPI for the first time in a game since 2018 against Merrimack was very fun. The biggest shame was that I was only in person for the 3-3 tie the night before, but the nine goal outburst put multiple Huskies on the scoring sheet in a way that has carried into the end of the semester including Jack Williams, Matt Choupani, and Alex Campbell.
- Transfers proving their mettle: Alex Campbell and Pito Walton have proven to be two of the best transfers arguably in Northeastern history. Campbell is proving himself to be the top-line caliber player that we expected going into the season, and Walton has been the bedrock of the team all year. Walton and Campbell are two of only six players to play in all fourteen games this season and contribute offensively, defensively, and as a leaders on the ice during games. In a landscape where transfers are proving more common and more important to team building, these two appear to be absolute grand slams from the coaching staff and we should expect them to continue to have large roles going forward.
- Defensemen scoring has been great this season, after the 2022-23 season had a grand total of five goals scored by defensemen all year. Pito Walton leads the corps with 3 goals, all on the powerplay. Jackson Dorrington has his first two collegiate goals. Vinny Borgesi, Michael Fisher, Doyle, and Staudacher all have goals, and Nolan Hayes has shown offensive flashes. Borgesi and Dorrington are both two points away from eclipsing their freshman season marks, showing growth and improvements in the offensive zone. Defenseman scoring has really helped buoy the team to date, and that’s because…
- Goal scoring has been fickle this year. It’s been better the last few weeks, which is what saves it from being in The Ugly, however there are still glaring issues when looking at the stats sheet, particularly in terms of goal scoring among forwards. Defenseman scoring is in The Good section! But the forwards deserve a different tone. Leading the team in goals is Campbell with nine, and then Lund and Williams have six each. After that, it’s a steep drop.
Justin Hryckowian has only three, but he missed some time and makes up for it with assists, averaging over a point per game. Liam Walsh has three despite playing all fourteen games, and those came against Stonehill, Bentley, and RPI. Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, expected to be one of the team’s top scorers, has played every game but only has two goals, both on the powerplay against Providence in early November. He has not scored at even strength yet. Matt Demelis, Dylan Hryckowian, and Matt Choupani, all players who have gotten time in the middle six, and in some cases top line minutes, combine for three goals all year, and there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Hryckowian has been one of the team’s best players despite being snake-bitten. There has been a single goal from the handful of players who generally make up the fourth line. Simply put, there just has not been enough scoring from players outside those at the top of the line chart.
Now, there could be multiple reasons for that. Injuries are the story of the season, and it’s going to be difficult getting into a rhythm and develop line chemistry when people are in and out of the lineup. And when you look at shooting percentage, with the NCAA average sitting around 9% usually, Northeastern has D. Hryckowian, Choupani, and Fontaine all shooting below that mark despite averaging a couple shots on net a game. This implies that there is upside to be had in the scoring department, and the law of averages implies things should swing back around for these struggling Huskies. If Northeastern can get a couple of these guys to fill the net more frequently, we’ll see wins start racking up quickly in 2024.
- Powerplay consistency. The Huskies sit with a powerplay percentage at 21.2% success, and a PK rate at 83.7% success. The penalty kill has long been a bright spot in the season- Northeastern was the last team in the nation to give up a powerplay goal, and they stayed in the top ten for much of the first half. Both special teams units now sit tied for 19th in the nation, but the number itself does not reflect why this is in The Bad. The Huskies have struggled mightily at times on the powerplay, ranging from the offensive zone break in to getting quality shots on net once in the zone, and most egregiously allowing shorthanded chances at an alarming rate, which only serves to give teams life.
In the three games since the RPI series, the powerplay has gone 1-for-11 while allowing a shorthanded goal that sparked the BC comeback at Conte. They also gave up two shorthanded goals in the series against UNH, a series where the powerplay went 0-for-10. They only have scored three powerplay goals in nine Hockey East games. Quite simply, you won’t win many games when your powerplay goes on extended dry spells while giving up scoring chances and goals when on the advantage, especially against better teams like what they play in Hockey East. When the powerplays lapse it also adds further pressure to the rest of the team to force the issue and score at even strength. Hopefully better health and lineup consistency will yield more reliable powerplay results and fewer droughts in scoring.
- The conference record. It’s been harped on, it’s been emphasized, there’s not much more to say. Starting 0-7 before the BC win was the worst start in Hockey East play in Northeastern history, but you could absolutely argue they deserved better results than what they got in multiple games. With the monkey off their back and a notch in the win column, it’s full steam ahead into the Spring. With how hard the conference is proving to be this season, finishing at .500 may prove to be a challenge with the hole they dug for themselves, but they can still position themselves for a good matchup come Hockey East playoffs and a run into the post season if they start stringing together some wins.
- Health has been an issue for this team since the opening weekend, when Fontaine missed the exhibition against Quinnipiac, Hunter McDonald went down with an injury in that exhibition that’s kept him out, and of the 24 skaters that have seen at least one game of action this year, only six have played every game. Every part of the lineup has felt the sting- the top line, the middle six, the fourth line and depth, the top defensive pair, the bottom four- and this has led to some players being pushed into roles maybe a little beyond their capabilities, or pushed players into more minutes of duty where they may get put into situations less ideal for them to be in. Coach Keefe said in the postgame presser after Brown that Lund, McDonald and Dorrington range from “expected” to “hopeful” in terms of being back for Duluth, and getting them back in the lineup would go a long way to setting the team right going forward
I said this on the WRBB Northeastern Hockey Show last week, but this season is very much still in play for Northeastern to achieve all of its goals. They currently sit 25th in the Pairwise (reminder that you want to be 14 or higher to have some level of comfort after conference championship weekend). Last year after the December From Hell they were 41st, and they still finished 18th after turning it on in the second half. They have nine games against teams ranked above them in the Pairwise, ten if they play Wisconsin next week, in addition to seven against teams within 10 spots of them. There is ample opportunity to make up ground fast if they can string together some wins.
The immediate road ahead is not easy, however. After Milwaukee, Northeastern has Quinnipiac and Boston University within three days of each other, then Vermont at home for two the same week. That is an absolute gauntlet with four important games within a week. But a one-game-at-a-time attitude is what this team needs to have if they want to play at their best every time the puck drops from here on out.
Health permitting, the Huskies will be as close to full strength as they have been all year to start the semester. Couple that with the momentum they started to build in November and December, and this team has the upside to make some noise in Hockey East and nationally in the Spring. It all starts one week from today in Milwaukee.
See you soon at Historic Matthews Arena. As always, go Huskies!