Northeastern is finally back at full force. With the return of sophomore defender Hunter McDonald in Thursday’s game against University of Minnesota-Duluth, the Huskies can breathe a sigh of relief as the series of injuries that’s plagued the team nearly all season long finally eases up. And oh does relief taste sweet when paired with an on-the-road win.
In the first game of the Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Northeastern defeated the UMD Bulldogs 4-3 in overtime.
Both teams were ranked in the top 20 in the preseason, but with sub-.500 records, neither squad has been performing up to expectations. However, Northeastern’s been on an upward trajectory in recent weeks, going 3-1-1 over their last five games headed into Thursday. And with Duluth missing two of its starting centers, it was the perfect timing for the Huskies to take on a midwestern powerhouse.
Despite being outshot in every period, 36-23 across all of regulation, the Huskies held control of the ice the majority of the first period.
It started at the faceoff dot. With two of their regular faceoff guys missing, Duluth struggled with the initial possession, and Northeastern claimed a dominant 48 of 64 faceoffs.
They moved in on the crease, setting up some good opportunities, but the puck was continually swallowed by senior goalie Zach Stejskal.
Meanwhile, Duluth struggled to get close to Northeastern’s net. They kept trying to force the forecheck, but often couldn’t chase it down in time and the Huskies would regain possession of the puck.
With four minutes left in the opening frame, the Bulldogs put up a perfect screen. Off the faceoff, freshman defender Aaron Pionk received the puck at the top of the zone. He swung it toward Northeastern’s net through traffic, and sophomore forward Ben Steeves was there to tip the redirection past Huskies freshman goalie Cameron Whitehead.
The goal gave Duluth some momentum, and with less than a minute left, they sent a dangerous shot off the far post, looking to extend their lead.
They got their opportunity just seconds later when sophomore defender Vinny Borgesi was called for cross-checking, putting Northeastern down a player against the No. 2 power play in the country.
The Bulldogs pulled out the same moves they’d put on the Huskies just three minutes before: a shot from the point, a screen, a redirection in the crease. But this time, it was senior forward Blake Biondi putting the puck in the back of the net to give Duluth the two-goal lead.
Coming into the second period, Northeastern took a page out of the Bulldogs’ books. A minute in, McDonald sent in a shot from the blue line, and although the Huskies didn’t have the redirection, they did have sophomore forward Jack Williams ready to jump on the rebound.
Halfway through the period, the teams really started to battle for the lead. With 12:20 to go, Bulldogs graduate student forward Quinn Olson headed to the box for hooking and Northeastern earned its only chance on the power play.
One chance was all they needed to tie the game. From the right flank, senior forward Alex Campbell smacked the puck into a tangle of bodies in front of the net. Williams fought for it, and his second rebound sailed past a floundering Stejskal to even the score 2-2.
Less than a minute later, Steeves picked up the puck at the blue line and passed cross-ice to junior defender Owen Gallatin. Gallatin took the shot — once again through a screen — just inside the far post to give the Bulldogs back their edge.
The brief tie had given the Huskies back hope, and they just needed to find the right moment to tie it again. Some physical play along the boards popped a column right off the glass and sent the game to a lengthy delay, and that time to breathe gave Northeastern some composure once play resumed.
Campbell skated the puck in with force, then passed it off to senior forward Gunnarwolfe Fontaine at the opposite circle. Fontaine waited, holding the puck just long enough to eye the perfect shot. He sent it past Stejskal’s outstretched pad, and the goaltender was visibly upset to give up that third goal.
With 10 seconds left in the middle frame, McDonald took a penalty for cross-checking, but this time Northeastern was ready to face UMD’s power play.
They headed to their locker room, regrouped, and came back on the ice ready to spend nearly the entirety of the first two minutes of the frame locked in 5-on-4 play. Duluth was able to notch a couple shots, but so was Northeastern, and they successfully killed the penalty.
Finally, the Huskies thought they were in the clear, but after just a few minutes at full strength, they had to do it all over again.
McDonald was back in the box, this time for tripping, but Northeastern faced this penalty with confidence. The Huskies barely let Duluth into their zone, much less toward the net. They pushed them back to their own zone after an initial clear and Duluth was barely able to set up its unit the entire power play.
With the clock ticking down on a tie game, the Bulldogs bared down on the Huskies. They pounded in shots and showed off their set plays, but Whitehead was a star between the pipes. He darted from side to side, throwing his whole body out in front of the puck and coming down on every missile sent his way.
Whitehead’s stellar saves kept the Huskies alive until the final buzzer, and the game headed into overtime.
In the 3-on-3 sudden death round, Northeastern started with possession, but lost it when the players started changing. Steeves came howling toward Whitehead, but he starfished out toward the puck, losing his stick as the disc clanged out of reach of any rebound attempts.
Then, Jack Williams got the puck and it was all over for Duluth. Williams skated alone through neutral ice, surrounded by Bulldog skaters, and sniped the game-winner into the top left corner of the net.
That goal marked not only a Northeastern victory, but also Williams’ first career hat trick. Williams now ties Campbell for the Huskies’ season-leading goal-scorer with nine.
Next, Northeastern will face off against No. 6 Wisconsin for another round of hockey in Milwaukee. The Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off final kicks off Friday at 8:30 p.m. EST. WRBB Sports will provide written coverage following the contest.