Northeastern Putting Together the Pieces For Another Run
by Sara Civian/CHN Reporter
Zach Aston-Reese brought a suit and tie to the Frozen Four last April, but no stick. The Northeastern captain was the NCAA’s leading goal scorer — of course he deserved to sit beside Will Butcher and Mike Vecchione as a Hobey Baker Award finalist. But unlike his peers from Denver and Union, his team didn’t even make it to the tournament.
As deserved as his nomination was, it was hard for even Aston-Reese to muster up some excitement about an individual accomplishment when the guy to his left got to trade his suit and tie for a sweater and a shot at the National Championship title.
The ordeal was a microcosm of where the program was by the end of last season. Not even Northeastern’s Wikipedia page beats around this bush: “The Huskies’ men’s hockey team has generally met with mediocre success.”
Northeastern has traded in its mediocrity for NCAA appearances five times — 1982, 1988, 1994, 2009 and 2016, the latter of which included a Hockey East championship. Last year the team dipped to 18-15-5, and in the past, the Huskies have been unable to sustain success.
But could 2018 be the sixth? Where do the Huskies stand 12 games into this season?
At 5-2-0, they’re off to their best start in Hockey East play since 2008-09. Adam Gaudette’s 17 points in 12 games are not mediocre, nor are Dylan Sikura’s 15 in 10. Sweeping Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University is no mediocre feat.
So even after a 4-1 loss to red-hot Boston College Saturday night, you got the feeling that this team could shake off the mediocrity again. Eagles coach Jerry York got that feeling, at least.
“I think, by far, this is [coach] Jim [Madigan]’s best team at Northeastern,” he said. “A lot of weapons … their first two lines are really difficult to contain.”
He’s talking about Gaudette and Sikura, but he’s also talking depth. Through 12 games this season, 11 Huskies have at least five points. Five have more than 10 — Zach Solow and Jeremy Davies have 13 points apiece and Nolan Stevens has 11. Every player who has seen the ice this season has recorded a point except the goalies and freshman Drew Blackmun.
With players like Aston-Reese, Gaudette and the Stevens brothers, we’ve come to expect high-power offense from Northeastern. https://www.collegehockeynews.com/news/2017/10/13_The-Goals-Will-Come-for-NU.php The additional depth has been important, but play away from the puck is what will ultimately determine this team’s success or mediocrity.
Early on, consistent dominance in the neutral zone and flashes of brilliant goaltending and defense have made success seem possible.
Although Friday night’s 2-1 win over a struggling Vermont team wasn’t exactly revolutionary, it proved Northeastern can come from behind and win without relying too heavily on offense. Headed into that game, it had been outscoring opponents 15-2 in the first period, so being forced to win in a different way was a test that Northeastern passed.
“I like the way we stayed with it, knowing we were going to have to keep grinding it out ... and we found a way to just get the game-winning goal,” Madigan said. “I liked our resiliency.”
Freshman goaltender Cayden Primeau lived up to his hype in the low-scoring defensive battle. He saved 20 shots, allowing one goal in the second period. But his timing was more impressive — half of those attempts came in the third, and one was a dangerous breakaway.
“[It improved my confidence] a lot ... just going against top guys in the nation helps me get better every day,” said Primeau, the son of former NHL standout Keith Primeau. “We’re going to be in situations like that over the course of this year ... if we get one we’re right back in it, and we did.”
Primeau has 175 saves on 193 shots for a .907 save percentage, a 2.39 goals against average and a 3-3-1 record through eight games. In Hockey East play, he’s tied for No. 2 with a .932 save percentage. Madigan said the win against Vermont was a huge confidence builder.
“It’s nice for Primeau to step up and make some key saves in those types of games. This was a confidence builder for him and for our team when he’s in the net,” Madigan said. “He’s evolving. He’s going to go through a lot of pressure and ups and downs, but our players have a lot of confidence in him. ... He’s gotten better in every aspect and a little more aggressive.”
Primeau seemed particularly aware of behind-the-net plays throughout the weekend, and he never hesitated to heavily favor one side of the net when he anticipated a wrap around. A freshman goalie with that instinct and the guts to act on it in mid-November? That’ll instill some team-wide confidence for sure.
Obviously the 4-1 loss against the Eagles negatively impacted his stats, but take a look beyond the scoresheet. Two of those goals were particularly flukey — a deflection off Primeau from behind the goal line and a shot that bounced off the leg of a Northeastern player into the net.
Penalty killing remains problematic: Northeastern has allowed nine of 39 goals down a man for a 76.9 penalty kill percentage. But if the Huskies focus on playing a clean game, and Primeau’s confidence — and the team’s confidence in him — keep growing, they have a real shot at a post-season much greater than one player in a suit.
“The good news is, I don’t think he’s near where he’s going to get to,” Madigan said of Primeau. “There’s a lot of untapped potential because of his work ethic.”
Northeastern has Thanksgiving off. It’s back in action against Connecticut on the road Nov. 28.