BOSTON — Northeastern may be holding on by a thread to its playoff life, but with only one game left in the regular season, the string has not broken.
Thanks to an all-out effort that included a two-goal performance by Jason Guerriero and a 38-save shutout by goaltender Keni Gibson, the Huskies’ remained alive for the playoffs with a 4-0 win over Massachusetts Friday night at Matthews Arena.
“We talked before the game that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, now we just have to find the lightning,” said Northeastern head coach Bruce Crowder, whose club is a win and a Boston University tie or loss away from making the playoffs despite an 0-9-2 start to the season. “[If we make the playoffs] that will certainly be something to write about.”
The fact that the Huskies are even in this position on the regular season’s final night has taken a boatload of work. They had to take three points one week ago from a weekend series against BU, sweep UMass this weekend, and hope that BU would get no more than two points this weekend against New Hampshire (the Terriers tied UNH, 3-3, on Thursday).
Now, they’re three-quarters of the way through that algorithm, and only a win in Saturday’s rematch at Amherst is the on the minds of these Huskies.
“We have to stick to the same routine and do everything that’s got us here so far,” said Gibson, who posted his fifth shutout of the season. “We’ve known we’re a good team all year long, even with a bad start. We’ve always known we were capable of [making the playoffs], now we have the chance to go out tomorrow and do it.”
On the other side of the coin, the Minutemen are engaged in their own battles, and according to head coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, “the window is closing.”
UMass can finish in third place, and needs just a win or a tie or a New Hampshire loss or tie to clinch the spot. At the same time, Massachusetts, which a month and a half ago seemed like a lock to make the NCAA tournament, is putting itself further and further away from that spot.
“We’re not only getting ready for the Hockey East playoffs,” said Cahoon, “but we’re fighting for a bid to the national tournament. Each one of these games that slips by makes that bid all the more remote.
“If we don’t [win] that game tomorrow, there’s a good chance we have to win the Hockey East championship in order to be invited.”
Northeastern benefited from a fast start from its offense combined with a sluggish UMass team in the first period. The Minutemen hadn’t played in two weeks.
“Sometimes with that time off you lose that competitive edge,” said Cahoon, “and that competitive edge might be just how hard you need to work to win in this league.”
After controlling the opening minutes of the game territorially, the Huskies opened the scoring at 12:32 of the first period on the power play. After UMass defenseman Thomas Pck’s stick broke on a clearing attempt, Mike Morris quickly picked up the loose puck and found Guerriero at the left post who quickly fired a shot past the moving Winer for the 1-0 lead.
Two and a half minutes later the same combo hooked up to extend the NU lead. This time Guerriero worked the give and go, dished a pass to Morris at the right post, who allowed the defense to converge before returning a feed that Guerriero partially fanned on, getting just enough puck for it to hit the post and trickle in.
After the slow first period, the Minuteman offense rebound in the second, outshooting Northeastern, 17-11, in the frame. But spectacular goaltending by Gibson, particularly when stopping a point-blank attempt by Pck at 4:39, kept UMass scoreless.
“It was easy for me to see the puck tonight,” said Gibson, “and when I’m playing pretty well and can see the puck, good things are going to happen for me.”
To make matters worse for the Minutemen, a defensive breakdown late buried them in a 3-0 hole. Tim Judy centered a goalmouth pass to a covered Trevor Reschny, but playing in his final home game, Reschny pushed the puck between the pads of Winer for his fourth goal of the year, giving NU more breathing room.
The Minutemen dominated Northeastern in the third, holding a 17-5 advantage in shots, but Northeastern’s Yale Lewis pushed any thought of a comeback out of UMass’ heads when he scored on a breakaway with 4:18 remaining to account for the 4-0 final.
And so the season comes down to one game for Northeastern. A win and a BU loss would give the Huskies the final playoff spot outright, but two different scenarios exists should the teams tie.
The first scenario would be created by a BU loss and a Northeastern tie. The two clubs split the season series, so the second tiebreaking criterion would need to be used — total wins. In this scenario, BU would have five wins to Northeastern’s four and take the eighth spot.
The second scenario would be a Northeastern win on Saturday combined with a BU tie. That would give both BU and Northeastern five wins, forcing the third criterion to be used — record against the first-place team. Northeastern beat Boston College in January, while BU was swept by the Eagles, and that would give Northeastern the eighth and final spot.
Scenarios aside, Crowder is proud of his team for even getting to a point where tiebreakers could be talked about.
“They’re been a great bunch of kids,” said Crowder. “If they’re not such a good bunch of kids, at 0-9-2, the season could’ve been tanked.”