The Goals Will Come for NU, But Will the Saves?
The first six to eight weeks of a college hockey questions tend to pose as many questions as they answer.
Sure, we'll see how a team plans to replace the star it lost to graduation or a pro contract. But we'll also discover a new hole or two. Injuries happen. Players improve and regress. It takes more than one, two or even five games to answer the early questions and identity the others.
So, when Northeastern coach Jim Madigan looks at his team after its season-opening thrashings of a wretched Sacred Heart team, it's easy for him to jot down the answers to a couple of the questions he had early in the season.
Freshman Zach Solow is on his way to replacing some of the scoring Northeastern lost when Zach Aston-Reese and John Stevens graduated. Sophomore Matt Filipe is likely to take another step forward as a producer for the Huskies. Grant Jozefek, too.
Madigan knew he could count on certain players. Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette are all-American-caliber forwards. Filipe was one of the best freshmen in Hockey East last season. Nolan Stevens is a do-it-all forward that can fit into just about any role in which Madigan needs him. Based on the lineups from the weekend and Madigan's comments, Sikura and Gaudette will play together as will Solow and Stevens with the remaining forward spots rotating until every line clicks.
"We've got the secondary scoring to support (Gaudette) and (Sikura), and Stevens to secure it," Madigan said. "I think we've got enough people who are going to put the puck in the net. We've got to get better defensively in our zone."
Solow was especially impressive in his first weekend of college hockey. Last season's USHL scoring champion scored three goals and added three assists over the weekend. Madigan slotted him right next to Stevens because of his similarities to a recently graduated Northeastern center — Nolan's brother John.
"He's a smart, cerebral player. He's got deceptive quickness and speed, but he thinks the game really well. We lost John Stevens who was probably the smartest player we've ever had in my six years here. Solow has some of those same ingredients. He's really smart, thorough in both sides of the rink. He was the leading scorer in the (USHL) for a reason. He's got a good stick and thinks the game well. He has some chemistry with Nolan and Jozefek. ... He's got to continue to play with more pace."
NU clearly has enough to account for the lost goals. Everything else will be the question. The shot suppression. The puck retrievals. And, mostly, the goaltending.
Losing Aston-Reese and John Stevens means losing two of the best three-zone players in the country. Even with them, Northeastern wasn't a great defensive team a year ago.
Despite the ability to score quickly and frequently, the biggest bit of skepticism aimed at Northeastern this year was the role of junior goaltender Ryan Ruck and his performance in the face of freshman Cayden Primeau's arrival.
"For the first time in my six years, we've got three goaltenders who are capable of playing," Madigan said, paying lip service to senior No. 3 goalie Jake Theut. "For the most part, we've run with one goaltender. Competition is good, and it is certainly there in the goaltending position this year. And, if both goalies play well ... we'll keep running with that."
Primeau is one of the nation's top freshman goaltenders and has all the makings of an NHL goalie. He's big, athletic, spent time playing U.S. youth national teams and has a father (Keith) who scored 600 points in the NHL. Ruck, meanwhile, guided Northeastern to the 2016 Hockey East tournament title despite not really playing all that well for any sustained period. He was Northeastern's clear No. 1 without ever really showing that he was worthy of the job.
"I've been really happy with Cayden's progress in the preseason," Madigan said.
"He played really well. He only had 18 shots. ... He played with some really good composure and poise for a freshman in his first game. It was warm in the building. Pucks were jumping a bit, and he had to be on his toes. He made some key saves at key times for us. ... Happy with his play. We've got competition at that position."
There's an admirable quality to Ruck's game. He isn't as talented as the other goalies around Hockey East, but he's won a number of hockey games. So much of his supposed success comes specifically from wins, which Northeastern has done mostly because of his teammates. Unless he's going to take a significant leap forward, Primeau will — and must — become the No. 1 for Northeastern as some point in the future.
Even in the tiny sample available thus far in the 2017-18 season, the pecking order revealed itself.
Neither Ruck nor Primeau were terribly good or bad over the weekend. Sacred Heart was never going to do enough to show us much about either goaltender.
The results were still quite different even with minimal work. Ruck allowed three goals on 22 shots. Primeau stopped all 18 shots he saw. There were circumstances beyond Ruck's control that led to the chances on which SHU scored, of course. Still, Primeau made those saves on Saturday. Ruck didn't on Friday and typically hasn't in the past.
Don't expect to learn much about Northeastern this weekend either. The Huskies head out to western New York for one game with RIT before heading back to Boston. By early December, we should have some answers. Their next nine games are against Quinnipiac (two), UMass-Lowell (three), Boston University (two), Vermont and Boston College. All five of those teams are NCAA tournament hopefuls and contenders for titles in their leagues.
The Huskies scored an awful lot of goals against Sacred Heart last weekend. It's safe to assume that will be a theme for the 2017-18 season. They won a couple games as well. For that to be a trend, they'll need to their real No. 1 goaltender to stand up.