Story by Eamonn Ryan
NORTH ANDOVER, MA — The Hockey East conference is always competitive. Each year, there are approximately eight teams that could beat each other on any given night, which gives hockey fans a chance to witness not only great hockey, but also plenty of chaos.
Chaos is what the sellout crowd of 2,054 at Lawler Rink in North Andover, Massachusetts experienced Saturday night as the landscape of the conference had changed drastically throughout the final day of the regular season. After Boston College swept UMass, the No. 13 Northeastern men’s hockey team had a chance to take home the regular season title — they just needed to beat the Merrimack Warriors in regulation.
For 59 minutes and 50 seconds, it looked like it wouldn’t happen. Any opportunity the Huskies had was stuffed by opposing goaltender Hugo Ollas and the scoreboard only read zeros until Huskies junior forward Aidan McDonough took a no-look, backhanded pass from freshman center Jack Hughes and fired it home with 9.6 seconds to play, effectively sealing the game and the title for the Huskies.
“Sam [Colangelo] had a really good stick on the forecheck, Jack Hughes did something that Jack Hughes does a lot and made a really high-end skill play and no look backhand to me in the slot and I just kind of whacked at it,” McDonough said.
McDonough’s 23rd goal of the season was arguably his most important, as the Milton, Mass. native secured the program’s first-ever Hockey East regular season championship in a rink he used to play on as a kid. He is now third in the country and he leads Hockey East in goals scored.
Intensity defined the first frame, with both sides sticking to the physical theme of Friday night’s matchup, but no goals or even solid chances came from either side. The atmosphere in the arena and knowledge of the stakes added plenty of pressure and kept the Huskies focused as the game went on.
“Every play matters in the playoffs. That’s kind of what felt like tonight. Obviously it’s a really small rink so we were getting hit pretty good, but it really did feel like a playoff atmosphere in the locker room between periods and before the game,” McDonough said.
Sophomore goaltender Devon Levi made 10 of his total 29 saves in the first, not allowing anything to get behind them.
After 40 minutes of play, there was still no separation between the teams, as nothing came of a 4-on-4 period where Husky graduate student defenseman Tommy Miller and Merrimack forward Max Newton each took matching holding penalties with 5:36 remaining in the second frame.
With the final frame looming, Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe had to fire his team up, and made sure to be frank with them.
“Just, you know what, 20 minutes to win a championship; it’s that simple,” the first-year head coach said. “Find a way, keep digging in, keep playing hard, play for each other and it will be worth it.”
It was worth it. Merrimack continued to fling pucks and bodies at Levi, but he repelled them all to extend his school record for shutouts in a season to 10. The strong performance culminated in a great faceoff play by the Huskies’ top line, giving Northeastern the top seed in the Hockey East playoffs.
“I give [Merrimack] a lot of credit. They played really well tonight. That was a heck of a hockey game. There’s not a lot of room out there. Both teams competed really hard. You had to work for every inch that you had, and we were fortunate to get one play there at the end of the game,” Keefe said.
All season long, the Huskies have had consistent stellar play from stat sheet stuffers like Levi and McDonough, but there is also a large amount of credit to be given to some of the guys behind the scenes who don’t always see their name on the scoresheet and McDonough made a note of that.
“[Jack Hughes] is an unbelievable hockey player. Super skilled, but I think [what] most impressed me about him is how much he works,” McDonough said about the first-year center. “He has a lot of second effort on battles. He skates, he competes. And his points may not be crazy high but he’s an 18-year-old kid who’s come into college hockey and done really well for himself. So he’s an awesome guy.”
The road to this accolade has been rocky for Northeastern. The Huskies could have made it much easier for themselves had they not dropped a goose egg at Vermont on Tuesday. They lost center Ty Jackson after Friday’s contest with Merrimack. But all season long, they have shown that they can be resilient, including in this last stretch of games since the Beanpot final, a 1-0 loss to Boston University and then a 4-1 loss to Boston College the weekend after.
“We didn’t play great in the Beanpot, we didn’t play well. And then you know what, I do think we were a little bit sleepy in that BC game,” Keefe said. “But what we did do is we responded really well when our backs were against the wall the next night, and I thought that was a really good learning curve for this team. So we went into BC and that was an effort that we needed and we came through. So that’s a game that I think we’ve really built off of.”
With the regular season done, Northeastern was able to celebrate their achievement, but they are nowhere close to done just yet. The Hockey East playoffs — and possibly the NCAA Tournament — awaits. The top-seeded dogs will take on the winner of seventh seed Boston College and 10th seed New Hampshire March 12 in the Hockey East Quarterfinal in Historic Matthews Arena.
“We’ll get back out on Monday; start preparing and getting ready for the tournament. Whoever we play, it’s gonna be a really good team, so we’ll be ready. It’s going to be a big week of preparation. We’re excited. It’s that time of year.”