By Matty Wasserman

After Northeastern’s Hockey East tournament semifinal loss to UConn last Friday, all the Huskies could do was hope. Friday’s defeat meant Northeastern no longer controlled their destiny into the NCAA tournament, and instead needed outside help to punch a ticket to the big dance.

“We’re hoping for the hockey gods to look after us,” Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe said after the loss.

Northeastern’s postseason fate was decided in dramatic and bizarre fashion on Saturday night, with a wild scene unfolding in the CCHA championship game between Minnesota State and Bemidji State. But amid the chaos and controversy in Mankato, the hockey gods ultimately prevailed for the Huskies, and Northeastern earned the NCAA tournament’s final at-large bid. The Huskies first-round matchup pits them against No. 1 seeded Western Michigan in the Worcester region on Friday at 12 p.m.

Just a month ago, the Huskies at-large bid hopes appeared to be slipping away from their grasp. Northeastern had lost five of eight games, was shutout in the Beanpot final, and Devon Levi had yet to return from Beijing and breathe new life into the team. But the Huskies flipped the script down the stretch, winning five of six games to close the regular season and downing a red-hot Boston College squad in the Hockey East quarterfinals to earn their way to the dance.

As the No. 14 overall seed, The Huskies enter their first round matchup against Western Michigan as heavy underdogs. The Broncos 25-11-1 record and strong finish in NCHC — college hockey’s top conference this season — earned them a top seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. 

Of the field’s four No. 1 seeds, Western Michigan is the best opponent for Northeastern to draw. The Broncos only have one NHL draft pick on the roster, and lack NCAA tournament experience, with the program’s last appearance coming in 2017. They went 9-11 this season against teams who qualified for the NCAA tournament field. 

Western Michigan has perhaps the most explosive offense and deepest lineup Northeastern has faced all season, but this is absolutely a game the Huskies can hang around in and potentially pull out late if everything breaks right.

Here are the top Broncos players to watch, and my keys to the Huskies pulling the upset on Friday.

Scouting the Broncos: Players to Watch

Fifth-year forward Ethen Frank leads the country with 26 goals. After scoring an absurd 17 goals in the first semester, Frank’s rabid scoring pace has cooled off slightly in the past two months. He’s one of the best finishers in the country, and is a force in the open ice. He is fourth nationally with 10 power play goals, and containing him will be a constant challenge for Northeastern. Frank plays with an extremely aggressive style and likes to slip the zone for breakaway chances, where he can use his superb speed in the open ice to blow by the defense and drive to the net.

Centering Frank on the Broncos top line is senior Drew Worrad. Worrad doesn’t shoot or score much himself, with just nine scores and 62 shots on goal, but he leads the country with 35 assists. Worrad has tallied an assist on 17 of Frank’s 26 goals, and the two have clicked to form one of the most dangerous combinations  in the country, both at even strength and on the power play.

Junior defenseman Ronnie Attard, a 2021 All- American, is on the short list of the best offensive-minded defenseman in college hockey. His 13 goals and 36 points this season are both second in the nation for defenseman, and his 124 SOG are 17th in the country for any skater, forwards included. And Attard isn’t merely a distributor on the Broncos top power-play unit, he has six power-play scores this season and boasts a powerful wrister. Attard is given free reign by the WMU staff to attack as he sees fit, and he is a key cog in the Broncos offense.

In net for Western Michigan is junior Brandon Bussi. Bussi has started all 37 games this season, and while his stats won’t jump off the page like Levi — .910 SV%, 2.60 GAA, and four shutouts this season — he is a reliable goaltender who can make big saves when called upon. Bussi started 34 games as a freshman in 2019-20, before battling injuries and playing just four games last season. Western Michigan’s aggressive play style doesn’t always put Bussi in the easiest situations, and he’s struggled against top NCHC competition like Denver and North Dakota this year. Bussi may not single-handedly win games for the Broncos like his counterpart on Friday, Levi, but he likely won’t cost WMU the game either. 

Key #1: Northeastern’s Defense Will Be Pushed by the Broncos Attack, But Will It Break?

The Huskies will be outshot in this game, almost certainly. Western Michigan is a high-powered offensive attack, averaging 31.2 shots per game and 3.7 goals per game, the fourth best mark in the country. 

But just because the shot totals, and likely shot quality, will skew against the Huskies, it doesn’t mean they can’t win. Northeastern has been outshot in seven of their last eight games, and sports a 6-2 record in that stretch. In fact, in Northeastern’s 18 games since facing LIU to open the second semester, the Huskies have outshot their opponent only three times. Keefe has acknowledged that Northeastern isn’t a team that puts a lot of shots on goal, and that will likely be the case again on Friday. 

But in order to take down the Broncos, Northeastern must play more physical and disciplined hockey than they did in last Friday’s 4-1 loss to UConn. Western Michigan has the largest average height and weight of any team in the country, and regardless of whether that specific stat has any relevance — it’s mostly just a fun little nugget — the Broncos will pose an enormous physical challenge to Northeastern. The Huskies must match their intensity along the end boards and behind Levi’s net, where they need to play with better anticipation and pace than they did against UConn. 

Against an offense as explosive as Western Michigan’s, the margin of error for offensive zone turnovers, sloppy play with the puck, and unnecessary home-run passes is nonexistent. Before last Friday’s loss to UConn, the Huskies played fundamentally sound hockey throughout their late-season surge, and they must do so again on Friday. The Broncos explosive offense, and specifically Frank, will capitalize on those turnovers and look to push hard in the opposite direction whenever given the opportunity.

Key #2: Which Northeastern Offense Will Show Up?

Northeastern’s offense exploded for six goals against Merrimack on March 4, but has scored five goals in the three games since. The Huskies’ forwards have the talent and skill to compete with the NCAA’s best, but the offense has simply disappeared for stretches of play this season.

There is no question Aidan McDonough will come to play. The Huskies sniper is tied for second in the country with 24 goals, and he’s scored six in the past seven games. His elite one-timer poses a constant threat to opponents, and he’s delivered big goals time and time again for Northeastern this season.

But aside from McDonough, who else will step up for Northeastern? Jack Hughes had four quality looks in the low slot against UConn, and it’s telling that Keefe has stuck with Hughes on the top power-play unit even after the return of Justin Hryckowian. Hughes, the youngest player in the NCAA, has continued to improve all season, and the moment won’t be too big for him.

There are games where Sam Colangelo looks like the best player on the ice, and others like the UConn game Friday where he is barely featured in the offense. Colangelo’s needs to drive shots to the net for Northeastern to maximize its potential on offense. 

The health and status of Ty Jackson for Friday’s game is also vital. His plus-skating ability and space creation is a dimension the Huskies have lacked at center during his two-week absence. Keefe deemed Jackson “week-to-week” after the Boston College victory two weeks ago, and returning him to the lineup would be an enormous boost for the Huskies’ offense and neutral zone play. 

Key #3: How Will The Game Be Officiated?

Officiating is a key to every game, but it’s particularly noteworthy when the two sides hail from different leagues that officiate games very differently. It’s not a coincidence that the three least-penalized teams in the country are all from Hockey East — the league’s officials let the teams play. Northeastern’s power play (19.8%) and penalty kill (89.5%) are both strong units, especially its superb kill that’s kept the team in games all year. But those units have had 91 and 114 attempts this season, respectively. Contrast that to Western Michigan, whose power play (25.3%) and penalty kill (82.1%) have had 162 and 151 attempts, respectively. With an officiating crew from neither the NCHC or Hockey East, how closely this game is called will play a huge factor dictating the play style and which team is more comfortable. 

Key #4: Just How High Can Levi Rise?

Levi’s other-worldly brilliance this season has become routine for Northeastern, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted: His .952 SV% is tied for the second-highest in NCAA history, and he’s doing it while making 29.6 saves per game. He’s the best goalie in college hockey and a legitimate Hobey Baker contender, but most importantly, can be a difference maker in a postseason matchup where Northeastern may otherwise be disadvantaged.

Most national analysis of this matchup has focused squarely on Levi, and if he can “steal” this game for Northeastern. While the matchup is not quite so simple, there also is some validity behind that line of thinking. In Levi’s seven games since returning from the Olympics Feb. 25, he has a .964 SV%, including a 60-save performance against UConn and a 23-save third period against Boston College. 

Any cliché about hot postseason goaltending can certainly be applied to Levi. But Levi isn’t just hot at the right time, he’s been Northeastern’s differentiator and game-changing presence all season long. 

UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh had an interesting comment after last Friday’s game about how his team adjusted to counter Levi last week, which is a blueprint the Broncos also may follow on Friday.

“Sometimes having one guy at the net and two guys off the flanks is a great strategy, but against [Levi] I don’t think it’s that great of a strategy. Very rarely are you going to beat him with just one guy, and nobody really beats him clean. He’s just a fantastic goalie,” Cavanaugh said.

To respond, the Huskies skaters must do a better job manning up attackers in the slot and forcing trailers out of the middle. Northeastern should feel confident their goaltender will give them a chance to win against anyone in the country, but they also must put their star netminder in better positions to succeed.

The Huskies will find out where they stack up against the NCAA’s best on Friday. Northeastern has the tools to pull the upset against Western Michigan, but they will need to play some of their most physical, alert, and sound hockey of the season to do so. Levi has proven time and time again that he can keep Northeastern in any game, but the players in front of him will need to rise to his level and deliver Northeastern its first victory in the NCAA tournament since 1982. 

WRBB will have live coverage from the DCU Center in Worcester on Friday at 12 p.m. Listen either on 104.9 FM in Boston, or at Mike Puzzanghera, Khalin Kapoor, and Matty Wasserman will be on the call.