By Mike Puzzanghera

Despite winning the regular season Hockey East title for the first time in program history, nothing is secure for Northeastern. Based on current PairWise calculations, the Huskies rank 14th — on the fence for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but with the important caveat that any huge upsets in other conference tournaments would likely knock them out of the top 16. To be safe, Northeastern needs to win the Hockey East Tournament. Unfortunately for them, every other team in the tournament needs the same thing.

The season, wrapped

It’s been a fantastic first year for Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe. A longtime assistant and associate head coach with the program, Keefe settled into the new job quickly — the Huskies hit a rough stretch in October, but turned things around quickly. To cap off a 24-11-1 regular season, the Huskies won a home-and-home with Merrimack on the final weekend of the season, usurping UMass at the top of the Hockey East standings and claiming the top seed in the Hockey East Tournament.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Huskies. They started Hockey East play 0-2 after losses to Boston College and UConn. After the second loss, Keefe said the team was just a “participant in Hockey East,” and that was when the Huskies went on a tear. They won four straight conference games, then after an overtime loss at UMass Lowell, they beat Boston University in overtime then tied them the following night. They wrapped up the first semester with a sweep of Providence while missing five of their top nine forwards, establishing themselves as a real title threat. Luckily for the Huskies, they had over a month off in December to rest, recover, and get healthy.

In the second semester, the Huskies were perhaps the most inconsistent and unpredictable team in the country. They swept LIU, then got their doors kicked in by Arizona State. They won two games against Vermont to sandwich three straight Hockey East losses. They knocked off UMass Lowell on the road before getting walloped by Boston College at home. They swept a nationally-ranked UConn team, then got shutout by then-last place Vermont. It was impossible to predict which version of the Huskies fans would get on any given night. Would they dominate possession and capitalize on power plays? Or would they barely register a threat offensively and look lost in their own zone?

Luckily for the Huskies, the team that showed up on the final weekend was the former. After an even first period against Merrimack at home, the Huskies blitzed through the Warrior defense for five goals in the final 27 minutes. The next night, they went up to North Andover for the season finale. As they hit the ice, they knew they still had a shot at the regular season crown — BC and UMass dropped the puck two and a half hours before the start of Northeastern-Merrimack, meaning that the Huskies knew that BC had just defeated UMass on the road. This left the Huskies two points behind UMass, and needing a regulation win to pass them. Playing on the small sheet of ice at Lawler can be challenging, and the Huskies certainly weren’t comfortable, but they managed to strike with less than 10 seconds remaining, sealing a 1-0 victory and the program’s first Hockey East regular season title.

Not much more can be said about the phenomenal play in net of Devon Levi, the Richter Award frontrunner and the best thing to happen to Northeastern since Chicken Lou’s. For a more detailed look at Levi’s historic season, read this.

Aidan McDonough has catapulted himself into the conversation of the best forward in Hockey East. The dynamic goalscorer leads the conference and is third in the nation with 23 goals, and his five game-winning goals are tied for third in the NCAA. McDonough’s importance can not be overstated: he draws so much attention from defenses, can create shots out of almost nothing, and also has one of the hardest one-timers this side of the Mississippi. He scored Northeastern’s first goal of the regular season (on the rush in the first period against Bentley) and the last (the game-winner at Merrimack with 9.6 seconds to go).

Other key Husky contributors are the same as they’ve been all year. Jordan Harris, the newly-minted Best Defensive Defenseman in Hockey East, is sure handed as ever on the blue line. Sam Colangelo returned from injury at the start of the calendar year and has been red hot ever since, with 9-12–21 in the 19 games the Huskies have played in 2022. Jeremie Bucheler leads Hockey East with a +21 rating and continues to prove his value as a free agent — he’s arguably Northeastern’s second-most important defenseman behind Harris.

A special shoutout goes to reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Week Jack Hughes. Hughes struggled to adapt to the college level early in the year, but the 18-year-old has five points in his last four games, including three in the first game with Merrimack and the assist on McDonough’s GWG in the season finale.

Facing an out-of-town rival

The Huskies drew eighth-seeded Boston College in the first round, who will make the trip from Chestnut Hill into Boston for a Saturday night date at Matthews Arena. Despite getting to face the lowest-remaining seed, it’s a massive challenge for the Huskies. BC has won four straight, including two over a UMass team that wiped the floor with Northeastern this year.

Northeastern and BC have played four times this year and split the series 2-2. After a 5-3 loss at Conte Forum in October, the Huskies beat the Eagles 3-1 in the first round of the Beanpot last month. A week and a half later, the teams split a home-and-home, with each team winning on the road.

Since returning from the Olympics, BC forwards Marc McLaughlin and Jack McBain have been incredible. McBain has 6-2–8 in just five games, and McLaughlin has 2-4–6 in the last four games, including the OT winner against UNH Wednesday night.

The Eagles’ biggest weakness, and where Northeastern needs to capitalize, is their penalty kill. They kill just 75.4% of their penalties, and they take around four penalties a game. For the Huskies and their sub-20% power play, they need to take advantage of BC’s mistakes. The Eagles conceded two power-play goals to UNH Wednesday night to let them back into the game.

The question for the Huskies in this one is if they’ll have a fully healthy power-play unit. Justin Hryckowian has been out since the second week of February, and has been week-to-week for the past couple of weeks. Hryckowian’s position in front of the net on the Huskies’ first power-play unit is integral to its success. While Jack Hughes has deputized well, a fully healthy Hryckowian provides a bigger boost.

The rest of the pack

Realistically, any of the eight remaining teams in the tournament can win the title. Hockey East has parity at the top of the conference this year as opposed to in the middle, meaning that each of these eight teams is a legitimate contender. But the three most concerning opponents are UMass, UMass Lowell, and Boston University.

UMass slipped at the end of the year, losing the regular season title with two straight losses to BC when all they needed was one win. Even still, the Minutemen are a force to be reckoned with. 

First of all, they’re the reigning national champions. Second, Bobby Trivigno will likely be the Hockey East Player of the Year after a fantastic senior season with 17-26–43. Scott Morrow is the only freshman skater to be a unanimous All-Rookie selection (Levi was unanimous in goal). Plus, they swept Northeastern this year, making it a clear difficult matchup.

The River Hawks are one of the most defensively-sound teams in Hockey East, second in the conference behind Northeastern with just over two goals against per game. Owen Savory had a great season in goal for UMass Lowell, giving them a clear No. 1 netminder. The addition of Matt Crasa was huge for Lowell, as the freshman scored 11 goals. Carl Berglund and Andre Lee each had 26 points for the River Hawks, who really don’t score a ton. But they don’t need to. That’s the beauty of the UMass Lowell squad this year — much like Northeastern, they can ride one of the best goalies in the conference to victory most nights.

Boston University started the year poorly, playing with the inconsistent nature Northeastern did in the second semester. But they started clicking in January, rattling off eight straight wins and winning nine of their last 11 games after the team got healthy. Wilmer Skoog and Domenick Fensore each have 30 points, with Skoog adding some necessary flair with incredible goals. Jay O’Brien has also been excellent for the Terriers, with 21 points in just 23 games.

Those are the three biggest competitors for Northeastern, but both UConn and Providence have strong forward groups and can score frequently. But should the Huskies beat Boston College Saturday night, they should expect another challenge awaiting them at TD Garden.

WRBB will have coverage when Northeastern men’s hockey hosts Boston College Saturday at 7:30, both on 104.9 FM and on, with Matty Wasserman and Emma Sullivan on the call.