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BOSTON — As Macklin Celebrini’s missile sailed past Cameron Whitehead, effectively putting an end to Northeastern’s final comeback attempt, the harsh reality began to sink in for the Huskies.

Over the past two months, Northeastern proved exactly how good they could be. They won huge games. They competed toe-to-toe against the nation’s top teams. Their success validated the program’s identity and process under head coach Jerry Keefe. 

And yet, as the final minutes of the Hockey East quarterfinal helplessly ticked away, the “what-ifs” were all the Huskies were left to grapple with. Because no matter how hard they fought to turn things around, or how well they clicked down the stretch, this group ultimately fell short of their goals, and will never have realized their full potential. 

The Huskies fell 4-2 to No. 2 BU at Agganis Arena on Saturday, ending their season short of an NCAA Tournament berth. Though Northeastern finished 10-4-1 in their final 15 games — including four Top-10 victories and a Beanpot title — their 0-7 start in Hockey East play ultimately proved too much to overcome. 

“The hardest part is I think we’re a team that should be playing in a couple weeks [in the NCAA Tournament],” Keefe said after Saturday’s loss. “Our start to the season in Hockey East was a disaster, quite frankly, and that put us in this situation.”

Much like the season itself, Northeastern went out fighting on Saturday. After going down by three goals in the second period — appearing to be the nail in the coffin against a lethal opponent — the Huskies continued to scrape and claw their way back, trimming the lead to 3-2 late in the third period before Celebrini’s dagger sealed their fate.

“We fought back,” Keefe said. “They’re a good hockey team, and to go down by three goals is a hard thing to [come back from]. … I was proud of the way we played. I thought we played a good solid game. I thought we limited a lot of their chances, and they finished on a couple of our mistakes. That was the difference.”

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The Huskies’ first line of Justin Hryckowian, Alex Campbell, and Dylan Hryckowan was phenomenal again on Saturday. Justin Hryckowian scored both of Northeastern’s goals on shrewd plays near the crease, and the line consistently forechecked hard, won puck battles along the end boards, and played with incredible poise and precision with the puck on their sticks. 

Since that trio was assembled 15 games ago against Merrimack — directly coinciding with Northeastern’s season turnaround — they were on the ice for 22 of Northeastern’s 33 even strength goals, and each member of the top line averaged over 1.30 points per game. 

On the season, they finished as three of Northeastern’s top four point scorers, and Justin Hryckowian (12-31-43) and Campbell (22-20-42) were Northeastern’s first two players to eclipse 40 points since 2018. 

“They were a special group, those three playing together. They were as good, in my opinion, as any line in the country,” Keefe said. “I just love how they did it because they did it the right way. They played the right way, and they were a lot of fun to coach.”

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While the team did not reach their season-long goals, they unmistakably played to the identity of Northeastern hockey — detailed, skilled, and relentless to play against — to the bitter end. Even in their lowest moments — the UNH sweep to drop Northeastern to 2-7, the blown third period lead against RPI, the mid-January loss to UMass to name a few — the team’s effort, intensity level, and buy-in never wavered. 

Once the Huskies finally returned to full health in January, and pucks finally began to find the back of the net, that process finally paid dividends.

“I just talked about how proud I was of them, to come back the way we did throughout the season,” Keefe said of his message to the team. “And, you know, we were not in a great spot early on, losing seven in a row in Hockey East to start the season. And to get to where we got to, it just showed the leadership and the pride and type of team that we had.”

How Northeastern’s season is ultimately viewed is a matter of perspective. The Huskies could have easily folded after their first half, but instead made something of this season, both in winning the Beanpot and in delivering huge Hockey East victories down the stretch. 

But the bar for this program is set higher than that, and Keefe is the first to admit it. For the second straight season, Northeastern’s first half was marked by significant injury misfortune, inconsistency, and bad losses that compounded into extended losing streaks. And for the second straight season, the Huskies rattled off a huge second-semester winning streak and finally became the team everyone envisioned when the year began — but ultimately fell short because of their poor start. 

“For us, getting to the NCAA Tournament is our goal coming in every single year, and it’s not going to change next year,” Keefe said. “So from that standpoint, it’s disappointing. You know, that was the ultimate goal. We thought we had a good enough team coming into the year to be playing in two weeks. So yeah, there’s factors, there’s reasons. But at the end of the day, we didn’t get there, and that’s disappointing for us.”

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While much of next year’s roster remains up in the air — and there will be plenty of time to dissect that in the coming weeks — Northeastern’s foundation begins with their netminder. After taking the reins from the best goalie in program history, Cameron Whitehead started 34 of Northeastern’s 35 games as a freshman, finishing with a .917 save percentage and having made the most saves of any goalie in Hockey East. 

“It’s huge, having Whitehead in there [going forward],” Keefe said. “He’s going to be one of the top goalies in college hockey, so we know that we have that coming back, and that’s where it starts for us.”

The Huskies walked out of Agganis Arena on Saturday with their heads hung low and blank stares filling their faces. This group had all the talent, leadership, and buy-in needed to reach their goals — no different than last year — but when all was said and done, the season once again ended too soon. 

Thank you for following along with WRBB Sports’ coverage of Northeastern Men’s Hockey all season long. Stay tuned for our full offseason coverage.