BOSTON — There was no way around it: Northeastern’s season was teetering on the brink headed into Saturday.
Following Friday’s disappointing 5-4 loss to Vermont, in which the Huskies controlled large stretches of play but ceded three goals in a two-minute stretch in the third period, Northeastern’s margin for error had waned considerably. The Huskies were staring down a 1-10 Hockey East record, and despite improved health and encouraging play against top opponents, the wins had not followed.
“You’ve got to be so ticked off at losing that hockey game, that we better come out with an unbelievable effort tomorrow night,” Northeastern coach Jerry Keefe said following Friday‘s defeat.
And while the Huskies did not exactly come out guns blazing on Saturday — they were outshot 10-1 in the opening nine minutes — eventually, they settled in and found their way to a 3-1 victory over a gritty Catamounts squad. The win improved Northeastern to 7-11-2 (2-10-0 HE) and 23rd in Pairwise — a good reminder that while the conference record is not pretty, the Huskies’ season-long goals are still ahead of them.
“Obviously, the conversations were a little bit difficult today [between games]. We weren’t happy this morning, I can tell you that — nobody was, including myself,” Keefe said after Saturday’s win. “But we needed to get back to playing a winning brand of hockey tonight.”
It’s an interesting inflection point of Northeastern’s season, with 60% of their schedule complete and 14 regular season games remaining to translate their improved play to tangible results. But, regardless, the path forward needed to include at minimum a weekend split with Vermont.
Here’s some thoughts on recent developments for Huskies’ offense, defense, and goaltending:
There’s a plan on offense, and it’s coming together
The Huskies’ seven-game losing streak in the first semester was pinned primarily on lagging offensive consistency and poor finishing, but that’s not really the case anymore — in the nine games since that nine-goal explosion against RPI on Nov. 25, the Huskies are averaging three goals per game and 29 shots per game. The production has been enough to hang around in virtually every game since.
Ahead of last Saturday’s game against Quinnipiac, Keefe made an interesting lineup tweak: Matt Choupani was bumped up to the first line alongside Justin Hryckowian and Alex Campbell, and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine was moved to the third line, playing with fellow veterans Liam Walsh and Brett Edwards.
The move was particularly interesting, because the Campbell-Hryckowian-Choupani first line was what Keefe had envisioned in the preseason, and sent out on opening night. Much changed in the three months since then — Choupani struggled and was demoted to the third line four games into the season, before missing five games with an injury and struggling to find a rhythm upon his return. Meanwhile, Hryckowian was sidelined with an injury himself, and was clearly playing at less than 100% after returning in mid November.
With Choupani and Hryckowian healthy, and Campbell settled in and gaining confidence and assertiveness, the reunited top line has finally begun to click. Choupani registered five points over his past three games — which include assists on a Hryckowian goal and two Campbell goals — and on Saturday, netted a crucial score to break the ice in the second period.
“Let me just be clear: It’s not about moving Gunnar down. It’s about trying to spread our lines out,” Keefe said of the thought process with the lineup adjustments. “With [Choupani], you can see he’s going right now, he’s starting to feel confident. He’s picking up some points. Scored a big goal tonight. So we like where his game is at, he’s just got to keep building off each game.”
Meanwhile, the new-look third line also had some sharp defensive sequences and effective breakouts against Vermont, while keeping the puck moving and making their line tough to play against.
Edwards had mostly been relegated to the fourth line or even as a healthy scratch in the first semester, but his veteran presence and crafty play has been a major boost alongside fellow fifth-year Liam Walsh and Fontaine. Edwards’ second-period goal against BU was a good example of finding open ice and being in position to deliver the puck on net — something Northeastern needs from its bottom six.
“Being an older line, we needed them to go out and give us a 200 foot game and play exactly the way we need to play [as a team]. That winning brand of hockey,” Keefe said on Saturday. “We challenged them, saying ‘we need you guys to lead the way.’”
The defense is not without issues, but must be a strength down the stretch
With the offense finding its groove, Northeastern’s defense maintaining consistency in front of freshman goaltender Cameron Whitehead is a necessary next step. The depth and big-game experience of Northeastern’s top four defenders is where the team’s biggest strengths lies on paper, but it must now translate.
With the exception of the first period against BU on Tuesday, the Huskies did an admirable job not getting hemmed into their defensive zone for long stretches at 5-on-5 over the past four games. When they did struggle, it was often because they failed to resist offensive pressure, and did not make it difficult for the opponent to stay within their offensive structure.
“We needed to get back to playing with more layers, and making it harder for the other team to get inside, blocking shots. Making the commitment to do all the little things, and the details,” Keefe said.
After missing 13 of Northeastern’s first 14 games with an injury, Hunter McDonald’s re-addition has reverberated across the lineup over the past six games. McDonald is asked to do a lot — he’s the team’s enforcer, he wins puck battles in the defensive zone, he can steady the puck against forechecking pressure and attacking rushes, and when needed, he can step up in the offensive zone and can make quick decisions with the puck.
While McDonald is still finding his way back, Northeastern’s path to success against quality opponents runs through his looming presence on the ice, and the staff’s ability to pair any other defender alongside him on a shift and still expect good results.
“Mac is a guy that takes up a lot of space, he closes quick, and he’s hard to play against,” Keefe said. “That’s the big thing. So, he keeps getting better at each game and he’s still got to get his timing back, having been out that long. But you can start to see that he’s right there.”
After Friday’s loss, Keefe highlighted the Huskies’ failure to recognize and adjust to Vermont’s speed coming in on rushes. But there have also been individual mistakes that have proved costly — for example, Vermont’s second goal on Friday came on a 1-on-0 rush directly off Pito Walton’s turnover at the defensive blue line.
Though Walton has battled some recent struggles after his terrific start to the season, he appeared more like himself on Saturday. Much like McDonald, Northeastern needs Walton to be a difference-maker to reach their full potential as a team.
“Everybody makes mistakes, and no one felt worse about that than Pito did,” Keefe said on Saturday. “Pito has been a really good player for us this year. He’s a guy we want the puck on his stick, and when he’s playing his best hockey, he’s confident with the puck. You can see that when he made that mistake, the confidence wasn’t there. What he needed to do was go out tonight and play a solid hockey game…if I’m Pito right now, I’m feeling like I just went out there and did that.”
Cameron Whitehead continues to give Northeastern a chance, and that can be enough
For the second time this season, Whitehead was pulled in the third period on Friday after giving up two goals in an eight-second stretch. Despite backup Connor Hopkins giving up just one goal to close the third period, Keefe trotted Whitehead right back out there on Saturday — as he will continue to do.
All told, Whitehead bounced back with a terrific performance on Sautday, saving 31 of 32 shots he faced en route to the tight victory. The Huskies were hanging on by a thread before Fontaine’s empty netter sealed it in the third period, and Whitehead delivered some outstanding sprawling saves with heavy pressure in the low slot.
“I think [Whitehead] knows we got a lot of confidence in him, and it’s as simple as that,” Keefe said on Saturday. “We go right back to him, because we’re confident in his ability. That wasn’t even really a question in my mind. I think last night, our entire team wasn’t at our best. But he came out and responded in a big way.”
When evaluating Whitehead’s performance in the bigger picture, it would be hard to really pin Northeastern’s record directly on him. While his season-long save percentage of .907 and 2.80 GAA is not elite — he was one of three starting Hockey East goaltenders not on the Mark Richter Award’s midseason watch list — he delivered impressive performances against talented Quinnipiac and BU opponents, and has made most of the saves he’s needed to for Northeastern to win.
“I got a lot of trust in my defenseman. It’s part of the game, everyone is going to make mistakes,” Whitehead said. “So, it’s kind of just being ready for everything. A shot can come in at any moment.”
If Northeastern can play mistake-free in front of him and prevent attackers from moving to the net with speed — where Whitehead has struggled a bit more — the Huskies will be able to hold on long enough for the offense to produce.
While Northeastern has dug themselves a hole with their current record and last-place spot in the Hockey East standings, the pieces remain intact for a far better close to the season. The margin for error is slim, but there’s still time — and that climb all started with Saturday’s hard-nosed win over Vermont.