For every team that falls just short of the NCAA tournament, there are a handful of isolated moments throughout the season that can be pinpointed as “what-ifs.”
And should the Huskies fail to qualify for this year’s big dance — now on the wrong side of the bubble, Northeastern will likely need to win the Hockey East tournament to punch their ticket — those “what ifs” will be particularly painful to reflect back upon.
The Huskies’ season began with the billing of league favorite and national contender, yet was a roller coaster of highs and lows that vacillated in quick succession; Northeastern fans hoisted garbage bags over their heads following the stunning loss at Bentley, only to fill 14 sections of the TD Garden upper deck and celebrate a Beanpot title in jubilation six weeks later.
And when the dust finally settled, Northeastern came so close to securing a coveted at-large bid — losing control of their own destiny with devastating losses to UMass and UMass Lowell in the final two weekends of the regular season.
But while those recent “what-if” defeats loom awfully large, losing hard-fought road games to solid, well-coached league opponents is par-for-the-course for almost every team, in every season.
Instead, what will haunt Northeastern most are the truly inexplicable defeats, even with a hampered defense at the time. The Nov. 26 loss to Union. The Dec. 3 loss to Sacred Heart. The Dec. 30 loss to Bentley. The two-goal lead blown in the final eight minutes against Maine on Oct. 28.
Had Northeastern won any of those four games, they would be in NCAA tournament position right now. And while their second-semester resurgence breathed newfound life into the team, the Huskies simply had too much ground to make up in Pairwise because of those ugly midseason defeats.
But those “what-ifs” are now in the past. For Devon Levi, the best goalie in school history, and Aidan McDonough, the program’s pillar and one of college hockey’s premier goal scorers, the Hockey East postseason represents their final shot to reach the NCAA tournament and compete for a championship — the very reason why both returned to Northeastern this season to begin with.
By simply winning the next three games, the Huskies can wipe away the agony of all 34 games that preceded them. With the season hanging in the balance and the team’s lofty aspirations still within reach, let’s dive into the matchups ahead in the upcoming conference postseason.
Hockey East Tournament Overview
The Huskies are the Hockey East tournament’s No. 3 seed, and will face No. 7 Providence in the quarterfinal round on Saturday night at Matthews Arena.
Should Northeastern defeat Providence (much more on that matchup below), their likeliest semifinal opponent would be No. 2 Merrimack, a team NU already swept earlier this season. Looming on the other side of the bracket is No. 1 Boston University, who Northeastern defeated in last month’s Beanpot semifinal and has matched up favorably with in all three meetings this year.
While there’s no opponent the Huskies will be heavy underdogs against, they also don’t have a major edge over any other team in the field. Thus has been the nature of Hockey East’s parity-filled season across the entire conference landscape, but it is an ideal scenario for Northeastern, who just needs three consecutive victories any way they can get it. With elite goaltending and a star player with a knack for goals in huge moments, there exists a highly-conceivable blueprint for the Huskies to emerge on top.
Matchup Preview: Providence
Northeastern and Providence first squared off Oct. 15, and the Friars exited Matthews Arena with an impressive 2-1 victory that didn’t feel nearly as close as the final score would indicate.
Consensus opinion of both teams was far different back in the early weeks of the season, but anyone who watched Providence pour 51 shots on Levi’s net that night would’ve been within reason to think the Friars’ speedy, veteran-laden team would compete right at the top of Hockey East, and stack up among the nation’s top offenses.
But that vision has not materialized for Providence, whose mediocre season was cratered by a 1-5-1 record in January — which included series sweeps by Merrimack and Maine, a shutout loss to New Hampshire, and a tie with Army. In their second meeting with Northeastern Feb. 10, sandwiched between the Huskies’ two Beanpot contests, Northeastern came back from a three-goal deficit in the final nine minutes to force an eventual 3-3 tie at Schneider Arena.
In the three weeks since, the Friars split a weekend series with UMass Lowell and got swept by BU, ending the regular season on a three-game slide. In Wednesday’s Hockey East tournament play-in game, they topped UNH 2-1 in overtime to advance to this round.
In a highly unsurprising stat, Nate Leaman’s Providence team is ranked third in the NCAA in shot attempts (1,240) and also third in Corsi-For percentage (58.3%). In fact, dating back to at least the 2013-14 season (when the CHN database began compiling the statistic), the Leaman-led Friars have never finished a season outside the top 10 nationally in CF%.
But this year, the high shot volume has not translated to goal-scoring for Providence, who are middle-of-the-pack nationally in goals scored and don’t have any individual player averaging above 0.71 points per game.
Fast-moving junior forward and prized Rangers prospect Brett Berard was expected to progress into one of the league’s best all-around forwards this season, but has plateaued with just 10 goals. The same is true of fellow junior Nick Poisson, who followed up his 35-point sophomore campaign with just 20 points this season.
In all, Providence’s top three goal-scorers — Berard, Poisson, and feisty 5’9” senior Parker Ford — have each tallied over 100 shots on goal this season, but all are shooting at under a 10% clip. Likewise, senior defender Max Crozier has launched 208 total shot attempts this season, with 97 on net, but he only has three goals to show for it. The Friars will launch pucks at every conceivable angle towards Levi, but he’s proven plenty capable of handling a high volume of shots throughout his time in college and against this opponent specifically.
Somewhat remarkably, Northeastern last outshot their opponent 15 games ago, in the Bentley loss. That statistic almost certainly will not change on Saturday; however the Huskies offense still needs to find a way to score early in the game to give Levi and the defense a chance to hold steady on the other end.
For better or worse, the Huskies’ past five months of play have put a season’s worth of weight on these next three games. But Northeastern, led by their captain McDonough, has all the talent to rise up to the challenge.
And after this, there will be no more chances left.