The 2013-14 season always figured to be challenging for Northeastern.
“You lose Kendall Coyne, Casey Pickett, Rachel Llanes — those kids are a lot offensively,” coach Dave Flint said.
Although they lost their top scorer to the United States Olympic Team and graduated the players ranking second and third, the Huskies won three of their first four games. They then went 4-9-1 over the remainder of the 2013 portion of the schedule.
“It was a combination of we were trying to find our identity, but also getting inconsistent effort from different kids on different nights,” Flint said.
Northeastern concluded the first half with a particularly disheartening 5-2 loss on home ice to Boston University.
“I was just disappointed that we battled back, tied the game, and then they scored kind of a soft goal, and I thought we gave up at that point in the game,” Flint said. “The one thing I always tell my team is the one thing I’ll get upset about is effort, and when the effort isn’t there, I feel like they’ve given up. That’s when I get discouraged.”
The other discouraging sign was the dwindling number of bodies available. The Huskies began the season with a roster that included 20 skaters and three goaltenders. When senior center Claire Santostefano was lost to an injury in the second period of a Jan. 12 game with Boston College, they were down to 13 healthy skaters. Northeastern ran out of gas in the third period of that game. BC was able to come from behind for a 3-2 win, but the Huskies haven’t lost since.
“So far this semester, even though we have a short bench, the kids are giving me a great effort every time we go out,” Flint said. “I think that’s one reason we’ve had some success here.”
Northeastern is in the midst of a four-game winning streak, it’s longest of the year.
“It’s kind of been a challenge for them and they’ve been thriving on it,” Flint said. “I read a book years ago called ‘Twelve Mighty Orphans,’ so I started calling them the 13 mighty orphans, and they thought it was pretty funny, so we’ve kind of been going with that theme. They’ve kind of embraced it, so I said the other day, 13 has been our lucky number lately. I’m just happy; I didn’t know what to expect when we went down to 13, what was going to happen. They’ve handled it pretty well.”
The Huskies have had to deal with a lot of things of late, but a shortage of shifts is definitely not an issue.
“We’re all pretty happy with our ice time right now,” senior forward Katie MacSorley said.
The team has managed to find positives amid the lack of depth.
“When you’re tired, you have more inspiration to motivate the players to keep going and do short shifts, and essentially because we’re trying to do all the little things right with being such few numbers and being efficient with everything we do,” MacSorley said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing these results, because we’re really focusing on the little things, and that is what is making a huge difference in our play. I don’t know if it’s because we’re forced to unite as a team more, or what it is, but I definitely think that we have come together as a team the second half of the season.”
A team with a dearth of players can’t afford some mistakes that a deeper team might overcome.
“There’s definitely more emphasis on trying not to get as many penalties and stuff like that, so we try to save our legs,” MacSorley said. “We’re definitely trying to be more disciplined as a whole.”
Practices have to change.
“You’re really limited on systems stuff you can do,” Flint said. “It’s been pretty good for us as coaches, because we’ve had to learn to adapt with it. Last week we had 11 kids for a practice. You really learn to come up with unique ways to run a practice and different drills to try to achieve what you want. It’s definitely been a challenge for us.”
In some cases, the systems themselves must be tweaked. For example, Northeastern usually likes to have its defensemen become involved all over the ice.
“This past weekend, our ‘D’ is so used to it, and two of them I had to grab them and say, ‘You’re not in a track meet here. There’s four of you, you’re going to play two games, so stay back,’” Flint said “We’ve changed our systems, not quite as aggressive, so we’re not going, going, going all the time, because you just can’t go hard for 60 minutes and expect the kids to have any legs come the third period or the second day of a back-to-back [series].”
On Saturday, the depleted group of Huskies got their first back-to-back test. After Brittany Esposito scored a game-tying goal and Kelly Wallace netted an overtime winner on Friday night against Maine, NU hosted the Black Bears in an afternoon game.
“I didn’t know what to expect, because Maine works hard and they’re a gritty team, and they can beat anybody,” Flint said. “I felt like we got some bounces and got some pucks in and then got a lead. That kind of gave our team a shot in the arm. I think if it was reversed and we were trying to play catch up, I think it would have been maybe a little different.”
As it was, Northeastern cruised to an 8-2 victory that featured a pair of goals by both Esposito and Wallace.
Challenging as it is to have just 13 skaters and a line chart with nine forwards and four defensemen, a further reduction could quickly prove to be unsustainable.
“I cringe every time somebody goes into the corner and gets bumped hard or goes down or slams into the boards,” Flint said. “It’s been a little stressful for me.”
The positive news on that front is that the shrinking bench may soon grow a bit.
“Best-case scenario is we’ll get two back, so best-case scenario we’ll have 15 at some point,” Flint said. “Right now we have one player who might be back this weekend; she’s day-to-day. It’ll probably be a game-day decision.”
Any reinforcement would be welcome, because after hosting Vermont for a Saturday game, the Huskies’ attention will focus on Tuesday’s opening round of the Beanpot.
“The two years past, winning Beanpot the first time was just unbelievable, and then the second time, winning it at home, it’s definitely something we’ll never forget,” MacSorley said. “It really helps to keep us motivated, I think, because with 13 players we can certainly try to get down and say that the odds aren’t with us and everything. Knowing that that is coming up, we have Harvard first game, and we didn’t beat Harvard this year, so it’s a lot to look forward to. There’s so much more to play for.”
MacSorley experienced a personal high in last year’s Beanpot final, scoring the deciding goal halfway through the third period versus BC.
“I’d say the shot from the point was really [why] we scored,” she said. “I was just lucky enough to get my stick on it and tip it. I can’t even describe it. I’ll always remember scoring that goal and rushing out to the point.”
Aside from maintaining a critical mass in terms of available players, the play of junior goaltender Chloe Desjardins figures to control the Huskies’ fortunes to a great extent.
“At times, she can lose focus, and when she’s not tracking pucks well is when she struggles,” Flint said. “We’ve really worked on that, especially this second semester, and her being more efficient with her movements and not overplaying shots. When she can do that, when she slows the game down and her movements are much more crisp and efficient, she’s a lot better goalie. And her team plays better in front of her, because they’re playing a little more relaxed versus when she’s fighting the puck, struggling with her rebounds, not tracking pucks. She’s been great this second semester. She’s really kind of been in the zone.”
The improvement in Desjardins and the skaters in front of her has doubled Northeastern’s points in the Hockey East race and moved it up to third place.
Flint said, “This week I told them, ‘Hey, you can’t even be thinking about the Beanpot, because Saturday’s matchup with Vermont is maybe the most important game of the year.’ They’re one point behind us; we’re two points out of second. We’ve got to just take this one game at a time. After Saturday, then we can start thinking about Beanpot. All the teams are strong again. Obviously with our short bench, we’re going to need good goaltending, we’re going to need some bounces, but anything can happen.”
Some things have yet to happen. Northeastern has never reached the NCAA tournament, having narrowly missed in each of the last two years.
“I think the hardest part about being a Boston team is we put so much into Beanpot and that’s certainly a focus,” MacSorley said. “The past two years, I wouldn’t say we were satisfied, but it was almost like that was our high, and then we had to realize, no, essentially we’re playing to go to NCAAs. I think this year, our heads are in the right place. We definitely know what our goal is, especially for us seniors. We’ve won a Beanpot now, and we haven’t been to an NCAA tournament.”
Because of how the first half unfolded for the Huskies (11-12-2, 7-6-2 Hockey East), they likely need to win the league tournament and its automatic bid to reach the NCAAs. With BU struggling recently, the field beyond Boston College looks wide open.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of the semester with all of our injuries and where we were at, I wouldn’t think it was a possibility, but the way we’ve been playing now, and if we can get a couple bodies back, anything is possible,” Flint said. “It would be pretty ironic if it did work out that way, considering how strong our team was the last two years, when we were right on the cusp of making the NCAAs and just fell short. That’s the great part about hockey and sports in general is those Cinderella stories. It would be pretty great if we can make that happen.”