Jacob Oshinsky/WRBB Sports

At the end of December 2022, Northeastern had just capped off an ugly 1-4-0 post-Thanksgiving stretch, with their only win coming in overtime after they coughed up a 3-0 lead to LIU. 

After a relatively promising start to the 2022 season, December sucked a lot of wind out of the Huskies’ sails, and they never really were able to get their feet back underneath them before the end of the season. 

In 2023, after a dismal first two months of the season, the Huskies wrapped up December with a 4-2-1 record, with both losses coming against opponents ranked top-10 nationally. 

With a 9-2 dominant victory over RPI the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a win against then-No. 1 BC to start the month of December, a come-back performance against Minnesota-Duluth, and multiple hat tricks from various players in the lineup after the offense had struggled all season, the end of 2023 seemed much brighter than a year previously — Northeastern was 41st in Pairwise at the end of 2022. This year, they are 25th.

The only thing to bolster the late-semester surge was a faceoff against No. 6 Wisconsin in the championship of the Kwik Trip Holiday Faceoff in Milwaukee. In the end, the Badgers’ tough defense proved too tough for the Huskies, as they fell in a 3-0 defeat.

To start Friday’s contest, Northeastern struggled to get clear of their own zone. They were able to keep the shot counter close, however freshman netminder Cameron Whitehead was active early — making four stops in the first four minutes. 

After the first few minutes however, the Huskies were able to overtake the Badgers in the shot counter, including a grade-A chance for freshman forward Dylan Hryckowian at the doorstep. Wisconsin’s netminder, Kyle McClellan, made some incredible saves of his own to deny Northeastern. The senior came into the contest second in the nation in save percentage, with a .936 clip in 17 starts, and his dominance was on display all night. 

Northeastern junior Braden Doyle had a rough neutral-zone turnover after he was unable to corral the puck on his stick, allowing Wisconsin sophomore Simon Tassy to spring into the offensive zone with control of the puck. The forward skated in, beat out a rushing Pito Walton desperately trying to get back, and launched the puck up and over Whitehead’s shoulder for the 1-0 score. 

Badger forward Carson Bantle went off after tripping up sophomore Cam Lund with 4:25 left in the first, and though Northeastern had a handful of quality chances, the Wisconsin penalty kill was easily able to prove why they’re currently third-best in the nation. Lund soon after took his own penalty, a hooking call, allowing the Badgers their first chance on the advantage with 42 seconds left in the frame. 

By the end of the first period, Wisconsin might have had the score advantage, but the Huskies hardly looked out of place. They led in shots on goal with 13, and had another eight blocked by Wisconsin in front. Not to mention the 11 faceoff wins to the Badgers nine, and four blocked shots of their own. 

But if the first period had Northeastern keeping it close, the second was one of their worst of the season. The Huskies had just one shot on goal, took three penalties, and gave up another goal throughout the full 20 minutes. 

Rough doesn’t begin to cover it.  

It started after defender Hunter McDonald knocked a Wisconsin skater into his own netminder within the first 10 minutes, causing Whitehead to be down-and-out while swarmed in front by the Badgers. As Whitehead was still caught down in the blue paint, the shot from David Silye went wide — a lucky break. 

Two good looks in the form of graduate student Liam Walsh’s slapper, and a second shot wide by Lund, were the only real dangerous opportunities for Northeastern in the first 15 minutes, and it seemed like a matter of time until Wisconsin converted again. 

And convert they did, or so it seemed. Sophomore Cruz Lucius buried a shot from the faceoff circle. However, after a brief review, Bantle was determined to be interfering with the netminder, leading to no goal on the play. 

No matter, as after McDonald and Owen Mehlenbacher were sent to the box on off-setting minors (unsportsmanlike conduct and cross-checking respectively), Wisconsin was able to dominate four-on-four play. Then, with an extra attacker on the ice thanks to a delayed holding call on Lund, Tassy buried his second of the game for the 2-0 Wisconsin lead.  

The fact the Huskies were able to make it out of the middle frame only trailing by two was nothing short of a miracle in the form of Cameron Whitehead. The freshman turned away 18 of the 19 shots he faced, and carried that solid play into the third period as he was shelled early on. If not for Whitehead’s presence in the net, it’s easy to see how this game could have been four or five to nothing, instead of 2-0 up until the last five minutes of regulation. 

However, in those last five minutes of regulation, Tassy completed the hat trick as he went five-hole on Whitehead with 3:28 left in the game. The netminder originally thought he had control of the puck, but it managed to just squeak past him after Tassy beat out three Northeastern skaters before pushing it past the goaltender for the score. 

The Huskies, to their credit, bounced back well in the third. After giving up six shots in the first three minutes, they managed to fire 14 on goal, and still came away with more faceoff wins (28) than Wisconsin (23) by the end of the game. It just was a little too late for them to crawl their way back into this one, as the offense couldn’t find a way to break through. 

A lot of that is thanks to McClellan, who deserves a lot of praise for his performance.. The netminder saved all 28 shots he faced en route to his second shutout in as many nights. Wisconsin is a legitimate national contender, and it’s largely in part thanks to McClellan’s performance on any given night. 

On the opposite end of the ice for Northeastern, it’s yet another disappointing outcome in a game that held such promise. While the bounce back in the third was a promising sight heading into the back half of the season, not being able to play a full 60 is still a glaring issue. 

So for a second year in a row, let’s ask the question — where do the Huskies go from here? 

January opens with another two tests, with games against Quinnipiac and Boston University on the 6th and 9th respectively. A weekend series against Vermont is definitely their easiest contest in conference so far, but even then the Catamounts have proved to be far more of a challenge this season than they were expected to be. Following that are games against UMass, Merrimack, and another matchup with BU which are certainly no picnic. 

For the Huskies, at least three wins in January in conference is a must — Hockey East is just too deep this year to keep dropping league games the way the team did in November if they expect to contend come March. 

It’s no secret the Northeastern PK has been… lackluster this season. After notching a 89.7% kill rate in 2021-22, and 84.8% last season, the 79.5% effectiveness in the first few months of 2023-24 isn’t a stat to write home about. 

In Friday’s contest, it wasn’t the Huskies inability to stay out of the box that killed them, but it certainly didn’t help that their defense when down a skater once again struggled. The penalty kill was perfect on the score sheet, but it was still a delayed penalty that contributed to Wisconsin’s second tally of the night. 

Of course the return of McDonald and Jackson Dorrington will be helpful on the disadvantage down the stretch, but if the team keeps taking penalties the way they have been, it doesn’t spell success. 

Seem familiar to last year? Just a little bit. 

If there’s anything to be positive about, it’s that the flashes of Northeastern’s success don’t appear to be a mirage. This is a team that can contend on a national level when at full power. With so many injuries to start the season, including graduate forward Matt DeMelis who was once again absent from the lineup in Milwaukee, it’s easy to see how the Huskies dropped so many games early. 

With those players back however, this is much closer to the team that was picked to finish fourth in the Hockey East preseason poll. Upon returning to the conference slate, the Huskies have to put together better, more complete performances across all three periods than they did in the months of October and November. Hey but at least this year, the non-conference stretch to wrap up the year was just a little bit better. 

Hopefully, it carries over the rest of the way. 

Northeastern returns to Matthews Arena for a matchup against Quinnipiac on Saturday, Jan. 6. WRBB will have live coverage of the game, with puck drop scheduled for 5 p.m.