BOSTON — This time around, there were no buzzer-beaters, miracles, or late-game heroics for Northeastern.
Boston University’s Lane Hutson delivered the game-winner on Saturday, sealing a 4-3 overtime victory for the Terriers in front of Northeastern’s largest home crowd of the year. The Huskies had a third period lead, but couldn’t hold on late against a talented and experienced opponent.
But make no mistake — this weekend was an overwhelming success for Northeastern. While Huskies couldn’t muster a go-ahead goal at the end of Saturday’s contest, Northeastern still comes away with four points out of a possible six this weekend after their 2-0 road win over BU on Friday.
“Two good teams kind of going toe to toe, and I think we showed when we play a certain way and play the right way, we’re going to have a chance to beat anybody,” said Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe of the weekend series.
Headed into the weekend, Northeastern’s only Hockey East victories were against Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, the three weakest teams in the conference. They’d suffered one-goal losses to quality opponents in Providence and UMass Lowell and tied Boston College, but badly needed to rack up league standings points against good competition.
BU is among Hockey East’s most formidable squads, and Northeastern’s ability to handle the Terriers’ physical forecheck and sharp playmaking for two games was a promising way to close out the first-semester conference slate. The Huskies’ next Hockey East game is against UConn at the Frozen Fenway on Jan. 7, and Northeastern’s schedule will now flip to six consecutive nonconference games over the next month. Before then, here’s five thoughts from the Huskies’ big weekend against BU:
Hunter McDonald has arrived
Freshman defender Hunter McDonald’s eye-popping eight blocks on Friday night was a good embodiment of the physicality and grit he’s played with ever since arriving on campus this summer. His tough-nosed, imposing play style was to be expected given his 6’4”, 207-pound frame and reputation as a bruiser from junior hockey; as a 20-year-old freshman and Flyers’ 6th round draft pick, McDonald leading Northeastern in blocks (his 31 blocks are 12 more than anyone else on the team) isn’t necessarily surprising.
But what has been both surprising and highly encouraging for the Huskies is McDonald’s mobility across all 200 feet of the ice. His hustle on the backcheck and bursts of speed to close down gaps is impressive given his stature, and he’s active with his stick, poke-checking and intercepting passes with precision.
“Big Mac, that’s a big lift for our group,” Keefe said after McDonald’s big performance on Friday night.
Likewise, the confidence is building offensively for McDonald, who fired three shots from the point on Saturday — including one that led to a Sam Colangelo tip-in score in the third period. His offensive work has complimented his increased role on special teams, where he now permanently resides on the Huskies’ first penalty-killing unit alongside senior Jeremie Bucheler. With an already-inexperienced defensive core further undermanned with the injury to senior Tyler Spott, McDonald coming into his own midway through his first semester of college hockey is a huge progression for Northeastern.
If there’s one thing that’s gone right for Northeastern through the team’s first 14 games, it’s Gunnarwolfe Fontaine’s big junior-season leap. His electric skating, high motor, and playmaking ability have been among the Huskies’ best since he was a freshman, but he’s now translating those skills to real production on the ice. His vision, decision-making, and forechecking has all vastly improved from last season, and the results are speaking for themselves.
On Saturday, Fontaine tallied his fifth goal of the season in the second period, set up by a beautiful feed from center Justin Hryckowian on the 2-on-1 rush. He’s now averaging 1.14 points per game, which is in the top 10 of Hockey East.
With star left wing Aidan McDonough out of the lineup for Friday’s game due to a one-game suspension, Keefe elevated Fontaine to the top line for the first time this season, skating alongside Hryckowian and sophomore Matt Choupani. But with McDonough returning on Saturday, Keefe notably kept the left-shot Fontaine on the top line, bumping him to right wing for the first time all year.
For weeks, Keefe has been tinkering with the right wing spot alongside Hryckowian and McDonough. The role was filled by freshman Cam Lund for the first month of the season, and he was supplanted by junior Sam Colangelo over the past four games prior to this weekend. While both Lund and Colangelo shoot right, a better fit on paper, it’s arguably worth keeping Fontaine on the first line regardless.
Some of Fontaine’s best production last season came playing at right wing along with McDonough and now-departed center Ty Jackson, so it’s worthwhile to give Fontaine a longer chance to gel with McDonough and Hryckowian this season. While McDonough’s shot in among the best in the country and Hryckowian is an all-league caliber inside force and distributor, both are average skaters at best. Fontaine can provide a burst of speed and playmaking that could elevate both himself as well as McDonough and Hryckowian to new heights as the season progresses.
Devon Levi is doing Devon Levi things
There is little to opine about Levi that hasn’t been written before (much of it from yours truly), but his performance against the Terriers this weekend only further underscored his value to Northeastern. His 41-save shutout on Friday was among his most statistically impressive performances at Northeastern, and there’s plenty of remarkable statlines to choose from. Both Levi and his goalie counterpart this weekend, BU’s Drew Commesso, were dynamic in both games. In Saturday’s overtime frame, each made a pair of highlight-reel saves, before Hutson eventually beat Levi on a 3-on-1 rush to end it.
Levi’s .942 save percentage through 13 starts is the third-best mark in the country, and the two goaltenders above him — St. Cloud’s Dominic Basse and UConn’s Logan Terness — are both in timeshares and have played seven and eight games, respectively. Among full-time starting netminders, Levi blows away the rest of the country with his performance thus far; and much like last season, Levi’s volume is incredibly high: His 403 total saves is second-most in the NCAA.
The Huskies’ 31.6 shots allowed per game is the highest mark in Hockey East, and much like last year, that’s manageable so long as Levi continues to perform as the best goalie in college hockey. And why should anyone expect anything but that?
Encouraging weekend for the penalty kill
BU’s power play entered the weekend at an impressive 23.4% success rate, but went 0-for-8 on the man advantage across Friday and Saturday’s contests. It helps when your goaltender can make nine shorthanded saves across those eight kills without letting any slip through, but the PK unit’s success stretches beyond just Levi.
The depth of Northeastern’s penalty killing forwards appeared as a strength headed into the season, and it is perhaps even deeper than we thought. Savvy veterans Jakov Novak and Matt DeMelis are each incredibly adept at forcing turnovers and stalling time on the kill, and are complemented by Hryckowian and freshman Jack Williams, who’ve both made tremendous strides this season. That’s in addition to the PK defenseman, where both the aforementioned-McDonald and Bucheler did a much better job this weekend providing physicallity at the netfront and forcing Terrier attackers to the perimeter.
The Huskies’ PK was the third-best in the nation a year ago with an 89.7% kill rate, and while the unit has taken its lumps this season without Jordan Harris, Tommy Miller, and assistant coach Mike McLaughlin, this weekend solidified that Northeastern’s kill, which is currently the third best in Hockey East at 86%, is progressing exactly how Keefe wants.
Nonconference tests give Huskies new opportunity
Northeastern has played just one true nonconference opponent this season (the Oct. 18 meeting with Boston College was technically a nonconference game, but against a familiar Hockey East rival), which was against independent-LIU on opening night. Now, the Huskies will be on the road for the next month-and-a-half, starting with Western Michigan in a nonconference meeting at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville next week. It’s a chance to see where Northeastern stacks up against good competition out west — and to get revenge for last year’s devastating NCAA tournament defeat, where the Huskies were defeated in overtime.
“I think our guys are just excited to play a good opponent in a really nice building,” Keefe said of next week’s meeting.
The Huskies’ upcoming six-game road trip comes at an opportune time, as they can stack up wins against weaker competition before facing a second-semester gauntlet in Hockey East. The December slate will feature a trip to upstate New York to face a middling Union squad, a rematch with independent LIU, and matchups with nearby Atlantic Hockey opponents Sacred Heart and Bentley, all before a New Year’s Day clash with a formidable Harvard squad.
WRBB Sports will have coverage live from Bridgestone Arena for Northeastern’s neutral-site meeting with Western Michigan. Mike Puzzanghera and Matty Wasserman will be live on the call Friday at 7 p.m.