NORTH ANDOVER — Returning to the facility on Monday after the latest heartbreaking loss, Jerry Keefe noted that Northeastern’s mood was fairly down.
Of course, the sentiment was understandable. The effort was high, the chances were there, and the games against top opponents were close — and yet, the Huskies were sitting with just two conference wins in late January.
But amid the adversity, Northeastern proved unwilling to give in. The team responded with another week of hard practices and detailed preparation, and finally, that process was validated with two of their most complete performances of the season.
The Huskies took both ends of the home-and-home series against Merrimack, winning 5-3 on Friday at Matthews Arena, and 4-1 on Saturday at Lawler Rink. It was Northeastern’s first weekend sweep of the season, and elevated their record to 9-12-2 (4-11 HE) and their Pairwise ranking to No. 24.
“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few [close games], and it’s never been a lack of effort or buy-in with this group,” Keefe said. “So it’s good to go through a hard week of preparation and guys sticking to it, and then coming out and playing well and getting rewarded for it.”
Merrimack was hampered with forward injuries this weekend, including to top goal scorer Alex Jefferies, and now sits below Northeastern in the league standings at 3-11-1. But every Hockey East win is hard-earned, and the Warriors already topped Northeastern in the teams’ first meeting in October.
These two wins won’t fix everything, but it proved that Northeastern’s growth in recent weeks — even if it wasn’t reflected in the win column — could actually translate into well-earned victories.
Here’s some thoughts from the Huskies’ big weekend:
1. While the return of Matt DeMelis and Matthew Staudacher from injury absences was not exactly front-page news, their re-additions reverberated across the lineup. With the exception of fourth-line winger Billy Norcross, who is out with an injury, Northeastern’s lineup is fully healthy for the first time since opening night.
In his return, Demelis provided his usual details, 200-foot play, and penalty kill work. But beyond that, re-adding a reliable top-nine forward who can play both center and wing provided far more lineup flexibility elsewhere: Fontaine was moved to the second-line alongside Jack Williams and Cam Lund, and for the first time this season, Dylan Hryckowian was added to the top line with his brother, Justin Hryckowian, and Alex Campbell.
Both line changes paid off in a big way.
“Getting DeMelis back in there gives us a lot of flexibility with our lineup, because we can go a lot of different ways with it,” Keefe said after Friday’s win. “We knew we were going to move some things around once he got back, so we tried that out tonight and thought it went pretty well.”
2. Let’s talk about that first line…because, wow.
Dylan Hryckowian was the latest entry in the revolving door of right wingers to play alongside Justin Hryckowian and Campbell, and the trio looked in sync all weekend. The line contributed three even-strength goals across the weekend, and it easily could have been more if not for some near-misses and quality saves close to the net.
What stood out most was the line’s ability to turn almost any situation into quality offense. They consistently retrieved loose pucks in the neutral zone and stayed on top of the puck, while also executing tight passes to shift the play’s momentum and catch the defense off-guard.
That composure with the puck and high-IQ play is a Hryckowian staple, and adding Campbell’s scoring touch — his two goals on Saturday regained him the team lead with 13 — makes the line even more promising going forward.
“They’ve got speed to the puck all over the rink, and they’re able to recover a lot of pucks,” Keefe said of the top line. “And where I think they’re most dangerous is below the goal line. You saw it on [Campbell’s] second goal — great net cycles in deep below the goal line, and just letting those guys go to work down there.”
3. It may sound obvious, but for Northeastern to climb back into contention, the star players need to play like stars night after night — and no one embodies that more than Cam Lund.
When Lund is at his best, he can simply take over games. His smooth skating allows him to seamlessly transition the puck through the neural zone, and his ability to create separation with the puck and draw attention in the offensive end creates quality scoring chances.
Merrimack had trouble closing their gaps and sealing off Lund on the backcheck all weekend, and it paid off in a big way: Lund notched two goals and four points across the two games, including the empty-netter on Saturday to seal the victory.
“He played like a man. He was determined all weekend,” Keefe said. “You can see the speed when he’s playing fast like that — getting to pucks first, getting over the puck, puck protecting. We were really, really happy with Cam Lund’s game.”
Put simply, this is what Northeastern needs out of Lund, who has delivered a handful of signature performances this season, but also had two five-game stretches with no goals. While his efforts were critical against Merrimack, the challenge will be even steeper against BU and Maine next week — and Lund will need to rise to the occasion for Northeastern to have a shot.
4. Saturday’s 2-1 loss to UMass felt like a major missed opportunity, largely because the Huskies squandered seven minutes of power play time in the third period.
That narrative flipped quickly on Friday, with Lund burying a power play goal just three minutes into the first period. Jack WIlliams tallied another man-advantage score in the second period, which vaulted the Huskies to a commanding two-goal lead.
Even after those two scores on Friday, the Huskies are converting a meager 11.8% of their power plays this season in Hockey East play. The staff has constantly shifted around personnel and systems in search of answers, but sometimes, it just comes down to players finishing chances.
“I didn’t think we had enough movement on a power play last week. I thought we were a little bit stagnant, and I didn’t think we showed enough deception,” Keefe said on Friday. “We put a lot of focus on it this week, and changed our power play around a little bit…just from a swagger standpoint with the power play, no matter how good you are, if you don’t score, it doesn’t help.”
5. The defense wasn’t perfect this weekend — Jackson Dorrington’s D-zone turnover led to Merrimack’s first goal on Friday, and Hunter McDonald was forced to commit multiple penalties while attempting to halt odd-man rushes — but all told, the unit delivered well-rounded efforts in both games.
In particular, Vinny Borgesi’s two-way impact shined throughout the series, connecting on breakout passes and initiating offense, while also doing a nice job holding his edge defensively and sealing off passing lanes. Of course, it helps to be paired alongside Hunter McDonald — a combination we saw for stretches last season, but until this weekend, they had hardly played together this year.
6. This has flown under-the-radar, but freshman Michael Fisher has been steadily improving on the third defensive pairing. He’s an important piece of Northeastern’s future, but also is making a legitimate impact during many of his shifts.
While there’s still some freshman mistakes and avoidable penalties, and his composure handling the puck and effectiveness along the boards has taken a leap. The return of Staudacher, his veteran partner for much of the season, helped provide an additional layer of comfort and more consistent shifts for the tandem this weekend.
7. After getting pulled against Vermont two weekends ago — though much of it wasn’t really his fault — Cameron Whitehead has notched a .941 save percentage (112/119) in the four games since.
Whitehead allowed four goals this weekend on Merrimack’s 49 shots. He made a flurry of high-danger saves on Friday to keep the Huskies afloat, including halting a dangerous 1-on-0 rush. On Saturday, his ability to navigate traffic and hold his center of gravity with activity in front of him shined through — a skill he’s excelled at throughout the year.
Whitehead’s season-long save percentage is up to .910%, which is seventh best in Hockey East. If Northeastern plays sound defense in front of him, he’s absolutely giving them a chance to win every night.
8. With two top-five Pairwise teams, BU and Maine, headed into Matthews Arena this week, the path will only get harder from here. But that’s also why Northeastern needed to deliver against the Warriors, proving they string together well-rounded performances in back-to-back games, and that this team still has enough to compete with anyone in Hockey East.
Khalin Kapoor, Matty Wasserman, and Luke Graham will be on the call on Tuesday night, as Northeastern takes on crosstown rival BU at Matthews Arena. Live coverage will start shortly before 7 p.m. on WRBB 104.9FM.