By: Dan McLoone
BOSTON- A late power play goal from Zach Aston-Reese proved to be enough for the Northeastern men’s ice hockey team, as the Huskies ended a 28-year Hockey East title drought on Huntington Avenue with a 3-2 win over the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks at the TD Garden on Saturday. Northeastern captured its first Hockey East crown since 1988, and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, where they will meet top-seeded North Dakota in Cincinnati.
“Obviously this is a great night,” said Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan. “I’m so thrilled and proud of our whole team. They’ve battled hard and they’ve shown a lot of resiliency and resolve over the course of the year.”
The Huskies ran through a gauntlet of Hockey East powers to win the title, sweeping Maine and Notre Dame before beating Boston College and UMass Lowell at the TD Garden. In the process, they became the first six seed to ever win the conference, and were also the highest seed to capture the Lamoriello Trophy.
“I think coming into this year we knew we could do it and whatever start we got it didn’t matter to us and I think that’s what made us win,” said senior captain Kevin Roy, who returned for his final season hoping to win a title. “After the first win at home against Maine we just felt confident to keep moving forward, just win one game by one and slowly make our way here. It’s not easy to make it to the Garden and much harder to win, but we did it as a group and everyone stepped up.”
Northeastern never trailed against the Riverhawks, and improve to 20-1-2 over the last 23 games after a 1-11-2 start. The Huskies struck first just 1:12 into the game, as Dylan Sikura fed the puck to Mike McMurtry at the top of the left circle, who immediately slotted it over to freshman Adam Gaudette at the back post for a one-timer past goalie Kevin Boyle and into the back of the net. It was the 12th goal of the season and 2nd of the weekend for Gaudette.
The Riverhawks leveled the score just two minutes later, as John Edwardh collected a rebound and fired it over Ryan Ruck’s shoulder from a near-impossible angle to tie the game at one. Like they had throughout the Hockey East Tournament, the Huskies responded. John Stevens flung a shot on net on the power play, and Nolan Stevens managed to tip the puck over a screened Kevin Boyle, where it hit a defender’s glove before bouncing into the net to give Northeastern a 2-1 lead heading into the locker room. The goal was Stevens’ 19th of the year, and the first power play score that Lowell had allowed since February 19th.
“There were several things that we didn’t adjust to as quickly as I would’ve liked,” said UMass Lowell head coach Norm Bazin, whose Riverhawks were coming off of a triple overtime win against Providence in the semifinals on Friday night. “I think that the biggest thing is that when fatigue happens, your game breaks down a little bit. What was most apparent to me as a coach was that we couldn’t make those adjustments quickly enough throughout the game.”
The Riverhawks controlled the pace of the second period, coming out with intensity and creating numerous chances to level the score. They managed to tie it up with just under seven minutes left in the frame, as Adam Chapie snuck a wraparound shot past Ruck and into the net. Despite threatening to take the lead, Lowell wasn’t able to get another one past Ruck, and the two teams remained deadlocked at two after 40 minutes of hockey.
“I thought that Lowell came at us hard in the second period,” said Madigan, who was an assistant coach on the 1988 Northeastern team that won a Hockey East title. “They pushed us and their pace and tempo were much more than ours. We were on our heels and we got out of it, 2-2, which was actually a good thing for us.”
The Huskies weathered continuous pressure throughout the third period, and were finally able to reclaim the lead with just under nine minutes to play on yet another power play goal. John Stevens tried to take a slapshot from the blue line, but broke his stick and instead sent a weak pass to Zach Aston-Reese on top of the crease. With Boyle slightly out of position, Aston-Reese was able to grab the puck and backhand it under the goalie’s glove to give Northeastern the lead for good. With the goal, Northeastern finished a conference-best 7-for-21 on the power play in the Hockey East Tournament, and have now scored on the man advantage in three straight games.
“We’ve got a lot on confidence on the power play,” said Madigan. “We’re getting a lot of good looks, we’re moving the pucks well, we’re clean with our puck movement and we’re finding the open guy. There’s fluidity to both power play units. We’ve got two units going, so teams can’t prepare for just one power play unit, and both units are scoring.”
Despite heavy pressure down the stretch, Northeastern’s defense managed to hold on for a 13th consecutive win, making it an even more impressive feat in what looked like a lost season back in December. The Huskies battled past injuries to key players like Dustin Darou, Trevor Owens, Dalen Hedges and captain Kevin Roy, turning their season around.
After being picked to finish 4th in the preseason coaches’ poll, a 1-11-2 start and 0-7-2 record in conference play had Northeastern mired at the bottom of Hockey East. Madigan never lost the locker room, as his players continued to believe they were a championship team and can now raise a new banner in Matthews Arena.
“In the past years, in the Beanpot Finals or close to getting in the tournament my sophomore year, we always seemed to come up just a little short,” said Roy. “And I think the players that have been here were tired of that, and that helped us moving forward. That’s the main reason I came back this year, to accomplish something. At the beginning of the year, when things were not going right, times were harder, but with character, you can overcome a lot. Coming back and doing this, it’s pretty special.”
Roy, along with fellow senior Colton Saucerman and sophomore Nolan Stevens, was named to the 2016 Hockey East All-Tournament Team. Roy finished with nine points in six games, including an overtime game-winner against Maine. Stevens has three goals and five assists, and Saucerman played excellent defense while also netting a goal and two assists.
Riding the longest active winning streak in the nation, Northeastern will head out to Cincinnati to take on North Dakota (30-6-4), who rank third in the nation, at 2 p.m. on Friday in the 1-versus-4 matchup of the Midwest Region. A win would face them up against either three seed Notre Dame or two seed Michigan, the Big 10 champions. Even though the Huskies are just a four seed, they are confident in their ability to continue the recent run a success.
“I look at our league, and we have six teams in the tournament,” said Madigan. “We haven’t played North Dakota this year, but we’ve played North Dakota-like teams all year long. Five of them are in Hockey East. We’ve played Quinnipiac, tied them. We’ve played Harvard. So we’ve played the top teams in the country this year. We have a lot of respect for North Dakota, but we’ve played their likeness with the strength of our schedule this year. Every team is a good team in the tournament, so whether you’re playing North Dakota or a different 1-seed team, you have to bring your best on the first night, and we’ll be ready to go.”