With back-to-back wins over UConn in the past two weeks, Northeastern had successfully emerged from their lowest valley and breathed new life into their struggle-filled season. But the Huskies still had much to prove headed into a pivotal weekend series against Merrimack, with both Pairwise positioning and first place in the Hockey East standings up for grabs.
Unlike the Huskies’ recent upwards trend, Merrimack had notched just one win in their past five games and was struggling to regain their first-semester form. Still, the Warriors were a tough opponent and a difficult team to beat at home.
On Friday, the Huskies proved their second-half turnaround is for real. Northeastern thoroughly dominated the Warriors en route to a 5-1 victory, the Huskies’ eighth straight win over Merrimack.
“Really good team win tonight on the road against a really good team,” said Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe. “We knew we were going to have to play a certain way tonight to have success. I thought we brought it right away.”
Northeastern took to the ice with intensity right off the bat. Merrimack freshman Tyler Young received a hooking penalty just two minutes in, which gave the Huskies an early chance to flex their power play. The top unit started strong, peppering sophomore goaltender Hugo Ollas’ net with pucks, including a wrist shot from the blue line by junior forward Gunnarwolfe Fontaine. Ollas spilled the rebound into the blue paint, where junior forward Sam Colangelo was waiting to tip the puck in for the first score of the game.
The Huskies kept their heavy pressure up as the first period progressed, opting for the same strategy of shooting from distance they had employed for their first goal. Freshman defender Hunter McDonald took a shot from just beyond the faceoff circle, and once again Ollas was unable to corral the puck. Sophomore forward Matt Choupani, who was waiting just in front of Ollas, easily stuck the puck into the back of the net to double Northeastern’s lead.
While the Huskies made a statement on offense through the first 10 minutes, outshooting the Warriors 10-0, their ongoing problem of spending time in the penalty box continued to be an issue. The chippiness began to simmer in the first, as McDonald and graduate student forward Jordan Seyfert received matching minors, starting a stretch of 4-on-4 play.
Shortly after, however, graduate student forward Jakov Novak got his stick tangled in the skates of freshman defender Zach Bookman. Novak joined McDonald in the box, giving Merrimack an opportunity to cut their deficit with the player advantage on the ice.
Northeastern’s penalty kill was textbook against a Warriors power play that has struggled this season. Junior netminder Devon Levi flashed his athleticism to make some showstopping saves, keeping Northeastern steadily ahead.
The Huskies were forced to rely on Levi and their penalty kill twice more in the first period, as senior defender Jeremie Bucheler received a penalty for cross-checking and Novak got another call, this one for roughing. Due to their extended time on the power play, Merrimack had brought themselves back in the shot tally, only trailing 12-10 in that regard by the end of the first.
To kick off the second period, the Huskies completed their kill of Novak’s second penalty. The matchup was far more even-keeled in the second, neither team managing to break through through the first half of the period.
Just over 10 minutes into the frame, graduate student forward Will Calverly picked off the puck for the Warriors as sophomore forward Justin Hryckowian was trying to clear the zone for Northeastern. After drawing Levi towards him, Calverly made a precise pass across the ice to senior forward Filip Forsmark, who had a wide-open net to poke the puck into, bringing the home team within one.
Northeastern did not stall for long. Hryckowian, trying to make up for his previous mistake, caught Merrimack mid-line change. He deked around the Warrior skaters that were on the ice and found senior forward Aidan McDonough with a clean look from the edge of the faceoff circle. McDonough found his angle and zipped the puck over Ollas’ shoulder, giving the Huskies a 3-1 lead.
After killing off yet another penalty highlighted by more fantastic saves from Levi, the Huskies headed into the final period of play with momentum. Just 17 seconds into the period, Bucheler sent in a shot from distance that Ollas was unable to control. The puck fell right into the path of Hryckowian, who easily netted it to put Northeastern up 4-1.
As the end of the game drew closer, Northeastern seemed to have more and more of a grip on the victory as they hunted for the dagger. With just under seven minutes remaining, Colangelo started a fast break down the right side of the ice. Reaching the goal line, he sent a centering feed towards Ollas’ crease. Junior defender Christian Felton deflected the puck with his stick, but it landed just in front of former Warrior Liam Walsh. The graduate student forward quickly spun around and slotted the puck into the top corner of the net, his second as a Husky sealing the game shut.
The 5-1 win marks the third in a row for the Huskies, who seem to be finding their stride in the second half of the season. Although they were outshot by Merrimack, 34-28, messy spills from Ollas and athletic saves from Levi put the game safely in Northeastern’s hands.
The physical, competitive play from both sides Friday sets the stage for a big rematch in 24 hours.
“We were committed to playing the way we needed to play in this rink tonight,” said Keefe. “[Levi] was really good tonight when he needed to be, so now we know we need to be even better tomorrow.”
The Huskies will complete their home-and-home series with Merrimack Jan. 21 at Matthews Arena. Emma Sullivan, Khalin Kapoor, and Daisy Roberts will bring you the call on WRBB 104.9 FM for the 7:30 p.m. puck drop.