BOSTON — Patience truly was a virtue for Northeastern on Friday night.
Despite holding a lopsided advantage in shots and territory, Northeastern trailed Mercyhurst most of the first half of Friday’s game.
But thanks to a revitalized power play and a never-quit offense, the Huskies rallied for the final four goals en route to a 5-2 win in their home opener.
“We had a lot of opportunities and we didn’t score on as many as we should,” said Huskies coach Bruce Crowder, who earned his first win of the season after opening with a pair of losses a week ago in Alaska. “It was a good game for us. We got behind and had some adversity but we came back against a good team in Mercyhurst.”
It was two power-play tallies by Northeastern’s Willie Levesque and Jim Fahey that changed the momentum of the game. Levesque added a second goal late in the game for his first multiple-goal effort since Feb. 17.
Those goals seemed to solve the secret of Mercyhurst goaltender Matt Cifelli (44 saves), who, for most of the game, looked Domenic Hasek-like, making incredible saves from his back, knees and almost any other physical position.
“We got some big goaltending from Matt Cifelli,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin in discussing his team’s positives. Gotkin decided to give Cifelli the start in this non-league game to rest top netminder Peter Aubry. What he got from his backup netminder was more than expected.
“Between Matt Cifelli and Peter Aubry, they’re going to give us a chance to win every night,” said Gotkin. “Peter established himself a year ago and I think Matt is trying to establish himself. Tonight he took a big step.”
In the other net, for the first time in a very long time — 79 games to be specific — the Huskies saw a new face. Rookie Keni Gibson (17 saves) started over established goaltenders Mike Gilhooly and Jason Braun. The last Northeastern goaltender to have a start besides those two was Dan Calore, three seasons ago.
Gibson certainly got a baptism by fire of sorts. After nursing back spasms, the rookie stepped in to, as he put it, “get his first win out of the way.”
But the toughest part for Gibson was simply not seeing enough action.
“I was pretty much used to seeing 40 shots a night playing juniors,” said Gibson. “The first period was tough seeing about one shot every five minutes. And two of those were good chances, so half the shots I see, they score on.”
But Gibson had plenty of time to re-group and did exactly that, shutting the door on Mercyhurst’s best opportunities, including nine shots on the power play.
“[Mercyhurst] had a couple of good opportunities in the third period when we were up by one and Keni kept them at bay,” said Crowder. “He looked solid. He made the saves when he had to.”
In a first period that saw Northeastern dominate, outshooting Mercyhurst, 19-7, struggling NU goal scorers mixed with an opportunistic Mercyhurst club spelled early trouble for the Huskies.
Having played defense virtually the entire period, Mercyhurst buried its first scoring chance when Mike Carter scored shorthanded. On an offensive zone faceoff, the Lakers’ Louis Goulet stole the puck and immediately centered to Carter who beat Gibson short side at 13 minutes even.
But on the same power play, Northeastern answered. Scott Selig found a bouncing puck on the doorstep after getting behind the Mercyhurst defense and tucked it under Cifelli to even the game at one just 58 seconds later.
The Huskies had countless opportunities to take the lead, but it would be Mercyhurst cashing in on a power play late in the frame to change fate quickly. On a set faceoff play, the Lakers found both Goulet and rookie Rich Hansen open to Gibson’s left. After Goulet bobbled the pass, Hansen buried it under Gibson for his first collegiate goal.
Early in the second the Huskies had two golden chances, as both Selig and Lynch were sent in alone on Cifelli. Though Lynch missed the net altogether, Selig’s shot looked targeted for the far side, but clanged sharply off the post to maintain the Laker lead.
Penalties, though, would get Mercyhurst into trouble. Back-to-back NU power plays resulted in goals, as Levesque and defensemen Jim Fahey each found open nets after large rebounds at 6:59 and 15:13 respectively.
Talking about his team’s penalties, Gotkin said “part of it was trying to keep up with [Northeastern].” But also the fact that his team needed to play physical.
“There’s that physical edge and you have to stay on one side of it and when you don’t you get penalties. Clearly, you’re never going to win unless you stay out of the penalty box and that’s something we’ll get better at.”
Northeastern held a 3-2 lead through two, despite outshooting Mercyhurst, 36-12.
The Huskies, though, extended the lead at 5:16 of the third when rookie Jason Guerriero scored his first career goal one-timing a pass from Eric Ortlip off the crossbar and in back of Cifelli for the 4-2 lead.
That goal finally took the wind out of the Lakers’ sails. With heads drooping a bit, the Mercyhurst defense sagged in the defensive zone giving the Huskies opportunity after opportunity.
At 9:58, Levesque notched his second goal of the night, wristing a pass from Lynch over the glove of Cifelli for the 5-2 final.
Northeastern, now 1-2-0 on the young season, will host Boston College on Saturday night. Mercyhurst, having gotten off a bit on the wrong foot to its season at 0-3-0, will rest until next week when they travel to Fairfield and Sacred Heart to open their MAAC league play.