TROY, N.Y. — Matt Choupani’s celebration said it all.
After netting his first goal of the season in Sunday’s opening period, the junior winger threw the proverbial monkey off his back in triumph — a metaphor that just about sums up Northeastern’s entire afternoon at Houston Field House.
Following weeks of pent-up frustration over lackluster finishing, snakebitten bounces, and debilitating injuries across the lineup, Northeastern let loose all their angst at once, rolling to a 9-2 rout of RPI.
The winning effort finally snapped Northeastern’s eight-game winless streak, and totaled as many goals as the Huskies’ past six games combined.
“After some tough ones, you earn yourself this,” said Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe. “Sometimes, you do the right things and the puck just won’t bounce for you. Goal scoring is streaky — all of a sudden, one goes in and you feel like a different player. So hopefully this gets our guys going.”
Northeastern’s one-game outburst won’t solve all their problems — the team is currently 3-7-1, No. 34 in Pairwise, and dead last in the Hockey East standings. But after suffering deflating loss after deflating loss over the past month, Sunday’s resounding victory is a much-needed step in the right direction.
“Things just haven’t been coming easy lately,” said center Jack Williams, who scored four goals over two games this weekend. “So see a few go in tonight, that’s really good for the confidence level of all of us, and hopefully we can take that forward.”
Here’s nine thoughts for the Huskies’ nine goals on Sunday:
1. Both advanced metrics and the eye test painted a picture that Northeastern was primed to breakout at some point. The Huskies shot a dismal 5.3% in their seven Hockey East losses, and outshot their opponent in three of those contests.
Still, the Huskies repeated failures to finish close to the net wasn’t just based on luck or positive regression. Facing a two-win RPI squad offered a prime chance to build some offensive momentum, but as evident in Saturday’s disappointing 3-3 tie between the same two teams, it was far from guaranteed.
On Sunday, the Huskies did a far better job finding solutions: Rather than forcing difficult passes into traffic or waiting for the perfect opportunity to emerge, Northeastern opened up their offense by shooting for rebounds and executing on their opportunities in front of the goal.
2. Case in point: At 5-on-5 in the late first period, Williams fired a shot in tight off goaltender Cameron Cherepak’s pads, generating a loose puck in the crease. Cam Lund stuck with the play, bending down to his knees to dig out the rebound and wrap around the gritty score.
Likewise, moments earlier, Alex Campbell found the back of the net on a wide-open rebound created by defender Nolan Hayes’ point shot — the type of fortuitous bounce that’s eluded the Huskies in recent weeks, but also a solid finish by Campbell in tight space.
3. Campbell, a senior transfer who scored a combined 30 goals over the past two seasons at Clarkson, appears to have finally settled in on the left wing. His two goals on Sunday tied him with Williams for the team lead, and he also leads the Huskies with 11 points.
In addition, Campbell’s linemate Justin Hryckowian sniped home a walk-in wrister on the power play, and also took faceoffs throughout the weekend — something he’d avoided in recent weeks while battling an injury.
With a healthier Hryckowian and comfortable Campbell, the two veterans are beginning to fulfill the vision Keefe had for their connection when the season started.
“[Campbell] is a really good player, and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get acclimated,” Keefe said “When your center is out for five games, and then he comes back and is playing injured, it’s tougher to find a rhythm. So I think with [Hryckowian] getting healthier, they can be a really dynamic duo.”
4. With Choupani and Matt Demellis both returning this weekend, the Huskies’ forwards were fully healthy for the first time since the Bentley game 46 days ago.
The returning third-line depth reverberates across the lineup: Freshman depth pieces Eli Sebastian, Billy Norcross, and Andy Moore can be utilized as spark plugs and igniters on the fourth-line, rather than being relied upon to drive offense. In addition, Keefe gains increased flexibility with designing the line combinations, with the option to flex Demellis to either third-line wing or fourth-line center.
5. Center Jack Williams had a killer weekend in Troy, combining for four goals and six points across the two games. Williams had not registered a point in the four games leading up to the RPI series, which were bookended by a two-game injury absence on Nov. 3-4.
Keefe paired Williams with Lund throughout the weekend on the second line, and the two sophomores really got in sync with their aggressive forecheck and effective transition breakouts. Importantly, they were both in control when attacked the goal, and played well within their roles.
“He’s an unbelievable player, which makes it easy for me,” Williams said of Lund. “I know my game is kind of just to go forecheck and try to get it to him as much as possible, because he’s going to do some special things with it.”
6. After Northeastern ceded two shorthanded goals to UNH last weekend, the coaching staff went back to the drawing board with the man advantage: In lieu of the traditional PP1 and PP2 allotment, the staff designed one Campbell, Justin Hyrckowian, and Pito Walton-led unit, and one Lund, Williams, and Vinny Borgesi-led unit.
It helps that the Huskies had over 15 minutes of power play time and RPI’s 68.4% penalty kill is second-worst in the NCAA, but both of Northeastern’s units were clicking on Sunday — the Huskies came away with three power play goals, and held their offensive zone well throughout each sequence.
“We kind of split it up a little bit this week, just try to give chances to certain guys on each unit that we want the puck in their hands,” Keefe said. “I thought both units were a threat today.”
7. After roaring out to a 4-0 lead in the first period, the Huskies were briefly brought back down to earth with a transition goal by RPI’s Dovar Tinling — an example of the Huskies’ pushed-up forwards getting beat in the neutral zone, leading to an open breakaway chance.
While Northeastern’s defenders were stellar throughout the weekend activating at their offensive blue line, staying attentive to those details on the backend is an area where the Huskies have struggled at times.
“That’s just a one-on-one that we really didn’t defend very well,” Keefe said of Tinling’s score. “I didn’t think that was a structure [issue]. I think our D just needs to do a better job keeping them in front.”
8. A kneeing major from RPI’s 6-foot-6 center Sutter Muzzatti with four minutes remaining in regulation turned things ugly in garbage time. The officials handed Muzzatti a quick and obvious ejection – RPI’s second major penalty of the game — but not before the Huskies retaliated. Even leaving the ice following the postgame handshake line, Northeastern was evidently dissatisfied with their opponent’s antics.
“We talked about staying out of the box, staying disciplined, but we were gonna stick up for each other,” Keefe said. “We weren’t going to start anything, but we want to make sure that if a team is going to take liberties, we’re going to step in for one another. I thought our team did a really good job of that.”
9. After finally breaking through against a weaker opponent, it’s possible that next weekend’s series against No. 1 Boston College will be back to the same-old for Northeastern. But against RPI, the Huskies could only control what was directly in front of them: Getting healthy, and getting the offense back on track against a vulnerable defense. On Sunday, they did just that — and now, the true turnaround can begin.
WRBB will have live coverage of Northeastern’s matchup with Boston College on Friday night at Conte Forum. Khalin Kapoor and Zach Lyons will be on the call at 7 p.m.