Back in October, Northeastern lost to UConn, 5-3, at home. It was utter dominance from the visiting Huskies, who scored three times in the final nine minutes of the first period to give them all the control they needed. After the game, Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe expressed his disappointment and frustration with the way his team was playing, saying that they were simply a “participant of Hockey East” the way things stood.
Fast forward five months, and Northeastern, the one-seed in the Hockey East tournament, is preparing to face that same UConn team at TD Garden in the conference semifinal. Northeastern won the program’s first regular season title, and they have the Hockey East Rookie, Goaltender, and Coach of the Year on their side.
Since that loss, they’ve clearly participated quite well.
“We didn’t play with any identity that night,” Keefe said of the October loss that dropped his team to 0-2 in Hockey East play. “UConn came in and imposed their identity against us. Obviously we’ve gotten better, they’ve gotten better … For us, we’ve got to make sure we’re playing our brand of hockey.”
Northeastern got their revenge on UConn for that early loss with a weekend sweep at the end of February. At Matthews, Devon Levi made 60 saves to tie the program record, keeping UConn out until the final minutes in a 3-1 win. The newly-minted Hockey East goaltender and rookie of the year made 100 saves on 103 shots over the weekend series. The next day, Northeastern scored five unanswered goals, including three from star forward Aidan McDonough, to complete the comeback. McDonough finished the weekend with seven points.
And the Northeastern Huskies are playing some good hockey right now. They’ve found the identity they didn’t have in October, they’ve won six of their last seven games, and they’ve found ways to get other guys clicking. Jack Hughes has stepped up over the past few weeks, with the slick freshman now centering the first line and imposing himself on opponents. Sam Colangelo returned from injury as one of the hottest forwards in the country, with 22 points in 19 games since the start of the semester. And with center Justin Hryckowian coming back from his own injury before the quarterfinal game against Boston College, the Huskies are nearly at full strength.
Northeastern and UConn are two of the upstart programs in Hockey East — Northeastern is a few years ahead of their fellow Huskies in that growing period — and rather than the old guard of BU, BC, and Maine holding down the Garden, it’s the new guard. None of those three teams are left in the tournament, and instead there’s two packs of Huskies and two UMass schools (Amherst and Lowell). Northeastern specifically has grown from the baby brother of the Boston schools to a mainstay in the national poll.
“Every single year, it’s like a little pressure, like don’t mess it up, keep this thing going,” senior captain Jordan Harris said after practice Wednesday. “We’ve been fortunate to have the players to carry on the success of the program, and the coaches have done a great job … you can see that there’s more swag, more confidence that we can beat those good teams.”
“I don’t know how it was 10 years ago, but I know how it is now,” assistant captain Julian Kislin added. “We’re a tight group, and kudos to the coaches and kudos to the staff for that.”
Northeastern claimed the program’s first-ever Hockey East regular season title this year with a thrilling weekend sweep of Merrimack to usurp UMass at the top of the standings, capped off by McDonough’s game-winning goal with under ten seconds to play on the final day of the season. It allowed the Huskies the chance to play the lowest remaining seed in the quarters, and the chance to pick the early game for the semifinals.
“We were looking at the regular season trophy, and it was like BC, BC, Maine, UNH in the early 2000s,” Harris said. “Every other team but Northeastern.”
But it won’t be an easy task for Northeastern Friday afternoon. UConn is big, they’re strong, and they’ll crash the net with the force of a thousand suns. Northeastern knows they’ll have their hands full.
“They’re physical, they finish checks, they’ve got some big bodies, especially up front, that are good on the forecheck that’ll finish hits,” Keefe said. “They go to the net really hard. We need to make sure we’re boxing out early, and we’re hard to play against in front of our own net.”
One of those big bodies is Jachym Kondelik, the 6’5” Czech forward who leads the team with 33 points. The Nashville fourth-rounder has been a consistent piece of this UConn build over the last four years, with over 20 points in each season. His team ranks include first in assists (21), second in goals (12), and first in power-play goals (four).
“Defensively, we’ve just got to be in the right positions at the right time,” Kislin said. “Obviously we’re not going to be able to move big guys as easily, but just playing the right D, being in the right spots, making the right reads, will carry us through the game.”
Another key guy for UConn include Hockey East First-Teamer Ryan Tverberg (13-18–31), the speedy 5’11” sophomore who leads the team in goals. Tverberg was one of three college players invited to Team Canada’s National Junior Team Selection Camp, alongside No. 1 NHL draft pick Owen Power and No. 5 NHL pick Kent Johnson. The Leafs seventh-rounder came to Storrs in spring 2021, scoring seven points for the Huskies. But he broke out this year with his electric stick skills and is ranked 10th in the The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler’s Leafs prospect rankings.
Sophomore forward Hudson Schandor has 18 points in just 26 games as one of the smaller guys on the roster. Some of the other big bodies up front include Vladislov Firstov (6’1”, 185 lbs), Marc Gatcomb (6’2”, 195), and Artem Shlaine (6’1”, 175). And while senior Jonny Evans has taken a step back this year after being a finalist for Hockey East Player of the Year last season, he’s always a threat to score.
In goal, Union transfer Darion Hanson has been money for the CT Huskies. The Hockey East honorable mention has made 33 starts for UConn with a 19-14-0 record. His individual stats are incredible — a 2.29 GAA and .921 save percentage. The grad student brings some size to the UConn crease (6’3”) and he’s been instrumental in UConn’s success.
Northeastern will have their hands full. But they do have a nice advantage in that they play at least two games on the TD Garden ice every year, while UConn is making its debut on Causeway Street.
“We have a good record in the Garden,” Kislin said. “We’re seniors, so [we’re] looking to go out strong and win another trophy and then carry on from there.”
WRBB will have the call from TD Garden Friday afternoon with Mike Puzzanghera, Khalin Kapoor, and Matty Wasserman on the mic. Coverage will begin at 3:45.