NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Who had that one on their Thanksgiving bingo card?
In an improbable turn of events Friday morning, a water main leak at Bridgestone Arena forced the Music City Hockey Classic to be relocated to Ford Ice Center, the Nashville Predators practice facility, just hours before the game was scheduled.
Despite the 11th-hour location change from an NHL arena to an 1,000-seat glorified community rink, Northeastern and Western Michigan delivered a faced-paced, back-and-forth contest, resulting in two third-period lead changes and a 6-4 Broncos victory. The non-conference loss drops the Huskies to 7-5-3 on the season, and 1-3-1 in their past five games.
Before the water leak mayhem, the game’s biggest storyline was the rematch of last season’s NCAA tournament first round, where then-No. 1 seed Western Michigan knocked out Northeastern in a 2-1 overtime thriller.
The current Broncos looked vastly different from the team Northeastern saw in Worcester eight months ago: they lost their top five scorers from last season, including two All-Americans, and their veteran goaltender. But WMU brought in impressive replacements this offseason, and still runs an aggressive, fast-paced system that pressures the defense and drives shots on net at will. Their 4.23 goals per game average leads the country, and they have three of the top five point-scorers in the NCAA.
Much like in the two sides’ previous meeting, Northeastern really struggled early in the first period to adjust to the Broncos’ speed and aggression on the forecheck, which forces quick decision-making and creates defensive-zone turnovers. Western Michigan senior forward Jason Polin opened the scoring with a deflection goal 5:16 into action, putting the Huskies back on their heels.
Midway through the first frame, the Broncos were outshooting Northeastern 8-1, and flooding the offensive zone with clean looks and rebounds on Devon Levi’s net.
Northeastern flipped the game’s momentum midway through the first period, after sophomore forward Justin Hryckowian capitalized on a Western Michigan defensive-zone turnover, flipping it to senior forward Aidan McDonough who punched in the easy score.
Just as the Huskies started to adjust to the Broncos’ play style towards the end of the period, Polin stunned the Huskies with his second goal of the period, single-handedly outskating the Northeastern defense and scoring off a clean look from the right circle.
Polin’s second score was emblematic of how Western Michigan looked to generate offense all game long. They shot at a high volume, and fired quick shots from the circles on the rush to catch the defense off-guard and generate chaos inside. Head coach Pat Ferschwiler’s squad only rosters three NHL draft picks — contrast that to Northeastern’s 12, including four second-rounders — but knows its identity and forces the opponent to play to its preferred style.
Northeastern started the second period by dominating zone time, but had nothing to show for it (another similarity from the NCAA tournament game). The Huskies were whistled for a bench minor for too many players with 12:18 remaining in the period, as they attempted to change lines while in the offensive zone. The game’s first penalty halted the Huskies momentum and forced its kill to face the vaunted Broncos power play, which entered the game above 27%.
Western Michigan had two power plays and a penalty shot in the second period, each of which threatened to extend their lead to three goals. But behind physical play from the penalty-killing defenders, and stellar work from Levi in net, the Huskies held on just long enough to see their offense come alive.
Two late-period penalties taken by WMU cracked open the door for two Northeastern scores in the final 1:11 of the period. The first was an easy rebound chip-in for freshman forward Jack Williams, scored three seconds after the Broncos’ penalty expired. The second was a power-play tap-in score by sophomore forward Matt Choupani, set-up on a beautiful slap pass from McDonough, who wisely used Western Michigan’s aggression against them.
Northeastern took the lead just under four minutes into the final frame, when McDonough cleaned up a rebound off a blue-line shot from freshman defender Jackson Dorrington. After picking up a one-game suspension for his post game antics against Boston College two weeks ago, McDonough has rebounded to play two of his best games of the season. Friday’s third-period score gave him three goals and five total points across his last two games.
But no matter how impressive the Huskies’ captain was offensively, Northeastern could only keep Western Michigan’s attack down for so long on the other side. Entering Friday, the Broncos had outscored opponents 26-9 in the third period, and it proved no different against the Huskies. Western Michigan junior forward Jacob Bauer punched in another deflection to level the score four minutes later — another tough break for Levi. A tripping call on the Huskies’ sophomore defender Brayden Doyle just minutes later put Northeastern behind the 8-ball, and star sophomore forward Max Sasson finally capitalized on the Broncos’ ninth power play shot of the night to take a 5-4 lead.
Northeastern wasn’t able to even it up in the ensuing seven minutes, and Polin completed the hat trick with an empty-netter to seal a WMU victory. As the Broncos have done in 13 of their 16 games this season, they outshot their opponent (the final tally was 39-28). When they successfully generate chances from the circles and drive shots on goal, they are difficult to beat.
Also noted for Northeastern was the absence of assistant captain and star defender Jayden Struble, who exited the game in the second period. His status is most important going forward, but in the short-term it forced Northeastern to play with five defenders for much of the game. Particularly against a relentless, constantly-moving Broncos’ squad, the legs started to tire for the Huskies’ defense towards the end of the game, something that may have contributed to Western Michigan’s third-period explosion.
Making the holiday trip down to Nashville, only to play in an arena one-fifth the size of your home rink and then give up three consecutive third-period goals, is a tough pill to swallow for Northeastern. But there were plenty of positives to take out of this game — Western Michigan is a formidable opponent, and the Huskies could’ve easily folded in the second period, when their backs were against the wall. Instead, they clawed back and sharpened their defensive-zone passing and breakouts to set up rushes and generate quality looks. While the shot total skewed in favor of the Broncos, the Huskies got plenty of shots and rebounds right in front of the crease throughout the second and third periods.
There’s plenty to build on, but also a hill that’s becoming increasingly steep to climb with each loss. After a five-game gauntlet against Boston College, Boston University, and then Western Michigan in the past two weeks, the schedule eases up for the Huskies. With the next three games against inferior competition, Northeastern must get back on track before a Hockey East gauntlet in January.
Northeastern is back in action next Saturday, as they travel to upstate New York to face ECAC foe Union. Be sure to tune in to WRBB Sports’ live coverage of the contest, starting at 7 p.m.