BURLINGTON, VT — Every season, every team, no matter the sport, goes through ups and downs. The 2007 Patriots rode high for 18 games, then fell in the Super Bowl. The 73–9 Golden State Warriors’ high lasted until the last three games of the NBA finals.
The 2019–20 Northeastern men’s hockey team is no different. They began the season with five straight wins, then laid some eggs, like the 6–3 loss on home ice to UMass where the Huskies allowed six unanswered goals. The team went on to experience one of the highest highs possible in college hockey, with an epic comeback win in the Beanpot Final.
The Huskies entered tonight’s match in Burlington, Vermont riding the lowest of lows. A tough loss at home to Boston College, followed by the Huskies’ worst loss since 1992 — a 10-1 thrashing at the hands of BC — was the prelude for what would happen Friday in Burlington. A 4–2 loss to Vermont, the Catamounts’ first conference win this season, may be the most embarrassing loss of this unholy trinity.
Despite this, the Huskies had an opportunity on Saturday. The mark of a truly great team is not how high their highest point is, but how well they bounce back from their lowest of lows.
The Huskies wasted no time in rebounding from their previous efforts, coming right out of the gates with an energy that had been missing as of late. With Grant Jozefek and Tyler Madden sitting out, forwards Neil Shea, John Picking, and Brendan Van Riemsdyk performed admirably, flying to every loose puck and putting loads of pressure on the forward and back check. Northeastern dominated the first 20 minutes, outshooting Vermont 12–7. Vermont netminder Stefano Lekkas was more than up to the task, as he stopped all 12 of the Huskies’ efforts.
The Huskies carried their first-period momentum into the second. Just under two minutes into the frame, a Riley Hughes pass down the boards found a surging Matt Filipe who, as he has several times, took his space behind Vermont goal and tucked away a lovely wraparound shot, giving the Huskies a much-needed lead.
Had the Huskies exorcised their second-period demons? Could we finally look away from the barn fire of the past three games to the greener pastures of victories to come?
No, they had not. And no, we couldn’t.
Less than a minute later, Vermont forgot they were a one-conference-win team playing the reigning Hockey East champions, and fought through the neutral zone into the Huskies’ end. The Catamounts forced Craig Pantano out of his crease to make a tough save and, in the defensive disarray, poked the puck into the empty net. Whether the failed puck clearance was due to poor sticks on Northeastern’s part or excellent ones by Vermont is almost beside the point. Gutterson Fieldhouse erupted, and Junior Bryce Misley skated away to celebrate.
The goal took all the wind out of the Huskies’ sail, and Vermont took advantage by pressing up the ice. The Catamounts had a couple of dangerously close chances, but Pantano held fast, undeterred by the change of momentum. The Northeastern defense is known for extremely disciplined and steady sticks when defending five-on-five situations, but this time they were wild, allowing the Catamounts to carry the puck through the Northeastern defensive zone with little-to-no resistance.
As the second period continued, the Huskies struggled to pass the puck tape to tape, with overpassing and underpassing resulting in several neutral zone turnovers. A costly turnover only a few minutes after the first Vermont goal resulted in a loose puck in the slot. Once again, the Huskies couldn’t clear the puck away from danger, and Vermont snuck a point-blank shot between the legs of Pantano to take a 2–1 lead.
The Huskies’ play did not improve from there. The Huskies saw barely any offensive zone time, and when they did, they were quick to turn the puck over and give Vermont loads of space to skate. The period couldn’t have ended soon enough, and it ended with the opposite result that the end of the first period would have indicated. Northeastern was outshot 11–4.
The final 20 minutes of the game were a complete shot in the dark. Which Huskies team would we see? The aggressive, fast-paced team that executed with precision in the first period, or the sluggish, uninspiring team from the second?
Northeastern captain Ryan Shea came out of the locker room and tried desperately to get something started. He skated around the Vermont goal three times, looking for any sort of opening. However, his teammates were not on the same page as him. The Huskies that weren’t handling the puck looked look statues. No one moved to create a shooting lane for Shea, or to get open and cycle the puck around. Shea eventually found someone to pass it to — no doubt he was dizzy from circling the net so much — and there were a few opportunities, but Lekkas stood on his head between the pipes and made several ridiculous saves.
When Vermont regained the puck, the most glaring flaw in the Huskies game became apparent: neutral zone defense. To call the it swiss cheese is an insult to the dairy product. Whether it was a single Catamount carrying the puck towards the Husky zone or an even-man rush after a lengthy buildup on the Vermont end, the Huskies couldn’t challenge.
As a result, Pantano would decide the game. Vermont had free passage into his zone, and shots resulting from the biblical parting of the Northeastern back check would need to be covered up to prevent an unlucky rebound from winding up in the back of the net. Pantano finished with 24 saves, and for most of the night he covered the puck or deflected it away.
But his luck ran out when a shot bounced off his pad and stayed in the crease. Vermont pounced on the gift like an excited kid on Christmas morning and potted their third goal of the game. From then on, Vermont stopped trying to score, opting to pin the puck on the boards and let the clock wind down. This strategy change gave Northeastern a few glimpses at Lekkas, but Hockey East’s all-time saves leader flashed his glove and prevented all of Northeastern’s efforts.
As the clock neared triple zeroes and the reality of defeat set into the heavy Husky hearts, the extracurriculars began. Soon after Pantano gave way to an extra skater, Zach Solow got into a shoving match with a few Vermont defensemen. A gnarly cross check by Solow well after the whistle earned him a 10-minute game misconduct, and Alex Mella wound up in the box. This was an ugly end to an ugly 40 minutes of hockey, and in a way it felt fitting. The clock struck zero, and the Huskies had been swept.
After the game, Jim Madigan praised the Huskies’ increased effort in comparison to their previous games. He chalked up the lack of execution to fatigue, saying that “running 10 forwards and going back to back caught up to us.” The fatigue was clear, as the offensive shifts were definitely shorter than usual without forwards Tyler Madden and Grant Jozefek in the lineup.
“We didn’t have quite enough in the tank, to be frank” said Madigan, adding that returning to Boston would provide an ample opportunity to “settle in, get a good week of practice in, and get ready for BU on Friday.”
When asked how the Huskies could return to their winning ways, Madigan expressed his confidence in his players’ ability to bounce back from the low point of their season, “knowing next weekend is the last weekend of the season if we don’t play well.”
“We have got enough guys who have played meaningful games and don’t want [the season] to end,” he continued, indicating that he expects the older players to step up and lead. The Huskies have a lot of experience on their roster, but they also have a lot of fresh faces. The guidance of veterans like Solow, Shea, Filipe, and Van Riemsdyk, many of whom have been on this Northeastern team for several years, will be essential in salvaging the season.
This loss, and a win by Providence over Maine, dropped the Huskies to eighth in Hockey East, the lowest playoff seed. New Hampshire is just one point behind Northeastern, so the Huskies need to hope for a BC sweep of the Wildcats or sweep Boston University themselves if they want to keep their tournament hopes alive. In the national pairwise rankings, the Huskies fell even further. They took the ice at 14th in the national polls, and left in 17th.
The Huskies make a much-needed return to Matthews Arena this Friday for the first game of the season’s final home-and-home series. It is also the final regular-season game at Matthews Arena, and will include senior night celebrations honoring the team’s graduating seniors. Matt Neiser and Adam Doucette will call the game, with coverage beginning at 6:45 PM EST.