Northeastern started the second half of Hockey East play strong with an explosive win at Fenway Park on Saturday against UConn. Though it was an underwhelming first half for the Huskies, who entered the season ranked 8th nationally and Hockey East favorites, the team has shown signs recently that they can pull the pieces back together and become the force people thought they could be coming into this year.
But the big question still remains: Is it too late? Here are some thoughts on the areas the Huskies must build on in the second semester.
Since the start of the year, the Huskies’ defensive issues have been attributable to youthful inexperience and needing time to develop. Now as the Huskies are halfway through the season, the signs don’t all point to the underclassmen as the reason for defensive zone troubles.
Looking at the +/- for players, which granted don’t always tell the full story, freshman defender Hunter McDonald boasts a team-leading +18, while fellow freshman Jackson Dorrington has a +6, and sophomore Braden Doyle has a +8. Freshman Vinny Borgesi, who’s spent the majority of his first NCAA season playing on the top pairing, also is in the positive range with a +/- of +2.
Three of these players lead the +/- stat for defenders on the team, and get ample time on the penalty kill with the exception of Doyle when injuries aren’t a factor.
Given these numbers, the blame for the flaws in the defense can’t be put solely on the shoulders of the young guns of the team. The blue line has been solid until a fatal mistake occurs. Noticeably for the Huskies, a slew of homerun passes, passes that get from one side of the ice to the other through the defense, have been connecting against them.
Passes like these create opportunities that force junior goaltender Devon Levi to attempt sprawling stops. Although he can sometimes make the highlight reel saves, the sheer volume of these types of chances getting through is creating more surefire goal opportunities than is reasonable for Levi to bail out.
Another area that has stood out, and one that head coach Jerry Keefe has talked about numerous times after games, is netfront battles. The Huskies have struggled to clear out players and rebounds in front of their own net and it is a point that has come up numerous times since the start of the year.
To put it in perspective, Harvard tallied three deflection goals and one rebound goal in their 8-4 win over Northeastern. Boston College’s game winner at Conte Forum was off a rebound opportunity in front of the net. In two of the more crucial matchups for the Huskies this season, these standout. However allowing net front goals is a recurring theme for the team regardless of their opponent.
Northeastern needs to improve on decision making in their own zone and on break out passes. Keefe has acknowledged the Huskies’ struggle to work the puck out of their own zone, and how some sloppy passes and decisions have led to goals against where the cage is wide open. Although this has improved since the start of the year, it remains a lingering issue for the team.
While the defense has been battling injuries with veterans such as seniors Tyler Spott and Jeremie Bucheler out for extended periods of time. However, even with these two in the lineup the mistakes in the defensive end remain the same.
While penalties have been a nagging issue for the team, the penalty kill has been outstanding as of late for the Huskies. In their past four games the Huskies have allowed 3 goals on 20 penalty kills. Some of those kills being five minute majors and others 5 on 3 opportunities.
In total, the Huskies have been down a player 85 times so far this season. The team has faced the most shorthanded shots of any Hockey East teams at 149 but have only allowed 13 goals against, which is the middle of the pack for Hockey East in terms of goals against. Nationally, their goals against average is tied for 16th.
What makes these numbers seem impressive is that the Huskies have a 84.3% penalty kill rate, third best in the conference, which speaks to the sheer number of penalties the team has taken.
While nowhere near his .941 short-handed save percentage from a season ago, Levi has backstopped the kill and the team with a .910. What makes Levi’s current save percentage seem more impressive is his 131 short-handed saves midway through the season. He saved 143 through the whole season last year while his team was down a man in front of him.
The power play’s 17.2% conversion rate is also middle of the pack in Hockey East. Although the power play struggled early in the year, it has seemingly started to click in recent games. The power play has only 82 shots, which is the lowest in the conference, however shot totals don’t always paint a full picture.
The Huskies have 11 power-play goals on 62 chances, which is on the lower end of Hockey East. Comparatively, UMass leads the nation with a 33.3% conversion rate, 19 goals on 57 chances. With the Huskies’ early struggles, the goal total isn’t as bad for where the power play has progressed to at this point in the year. There is always room to improve, but at this point in the year the power play needs to just be consistent.
The team having a combined 260 penalty minutes, 11th nationally, speaks enough about discipline being an issue for the team. While a few of those minutes were end of game penalties or overlapping five-minute majors, Northeastern simply needs to stay out of the box more.
Keefe has said that taking penalties takes momentum out of the offense. Some of the Huskies’ better offensive performances have been games that have little to no penalties against the team. If the discipline is fixed and the penalties are less, we could see a much different team offensively since the Huskies will be able to carry more momentum throughout the game and give their offensive talent more time and chances with the puck.
The Second Line
The second line had a rough start to the season, but junior Gunnarwolfe Fontaine has been a consistent bright spot of the line since the start. He currently is third on the team in points with 20 and has seven goals and 13 assists.
Sophomore Jack Hughes and junior Sam Colangelo in their last few games have started to heat up after underwhelming starts. Hughes, who was held to one goal through his first 14 games, has scored another two in his last four as well as producing seven assists thus far. Hughes however was also injured and missed three games.
Colangelo, who has been streaky and collecting his goals in bulk has looked solid in recent games. Although he may not be scoring at the rate or consistency that was hoped for entering the season he has been a decent playmaking threat for his line and a more physical presence.
With the offense starting to come together for the second line the next area of work has to be in their own end. All the line members are in the negatives for plus/minus and have allowed some shaky opportunities to be goals when they are on the ice.
The number of chances for the second line have been increasing game in and game out since the start of December and hopefully they can produce at a level that helps lead the team in the late stretch of the season.
The offense at the beginning of the year and according to the shot charts seemed to be heavily focused around cycling the puck up to the blue line for point shots by defenders. Looking back at Northeastern’s shot chart against Western Michigan, almost all except for two or three shots through the first two periods came from the point or on rebound opportunities produced from point shots.
In recent games, the system has seemed to involve and trust the forwards more heavily. The more skilled and fast paced lines have gotten away from battling for the puck low against the boards and forcing the puck around. Instead they are passing to open space and maintaining speed with the puck, not being pinned against the board. This allows them to use the stick and skating skill we know they have to their full advantage.
Although Northeastern was blown out by Harvard, it was one of their best performances in the offensive zone this year. Their cycle utilized all the stick skill and strengths of the individual players in the top six that allowed for numerous high quality opportunities from those lines that were stopped by a hot goaltender that night.
Additionally, the defenders didn’t seem to panic with the puck by the blue line. They used their skills to create time and space and take smart passes and sometimes shots that would get all the way through to the goalie. This is in comparison to some of the panicked looking passes and shots when defenders approached earlier on out of fear of turning the puck over at the blue line.
If Northeastern can maintain this quick and elusive offense the goal chances will come and they will be able to stay in games much easier than earlier in the year.