BOSTON — The game was barely over and the chant began: “We want the Beanpot.”
Thankfully for the Northeastern Huskies, they were not as focused on the Beanpot as their fans, as they successfully held off the Massachusetts Minutemen, 2-1, to give the club some much-needed momentum heading into Monday’s Beanpot as well as catapult NU into fifth place in Hockey East.
The game featured efforts that both teams that both coaches were happy with; in the end. it came down to Northeastern goaltender Keni Gibson making two late point-blank saves to preserve the one-goal win.
“Keni Gibson was the difference tonight,” said Northeastern head coach Bruce Crowder of his senior goaltender, who finished with 28 saves. “They had the best of the opportunities and maybe had more than Maine had [last weekend] against us.
“But we played a pretty solid third period and didn’t give up a lot.”
Special teams also played a big role in the game. Both of Northeastern’s goals came from special-teams play, with Jason Guerriero netting the first goal on the power play and linemate Mike Morris scoring the eventual game winner shorthanded.
Northeastern has now scored power-play goals in three of its last four games, while Morris’ tally was NU’s third shorthanded goal of the season.
A slow, sloppy-looking first period featured penalty-free hockey and, at the same time, few quality scoring chances.
Tim Vitek had UMass’ only quality opportunity when he skated down the right wing and let fly a wrist shot that beat Gibson cleanly but hit the left post three minutes into the game.
NU fourth-liner Steve Sanders answered with a scoring chance of his own with five minutes remaining, skating in on a breakaway. Bothered by the defenseman, Sanders was unable to get a perfect shot off, leaving UMass goaltender Gabe Winer (20 saves) to make a routine left pad stop.
UMass held an 11-8 advantage on the shot chart but only two for each team came from the grade ‘A’ area.
In the second, the pace of play increased, as did the shots on goal and ultimately the scoring. The good news for the Huskies was that they scored three times. The bad news? One of those goals was into the wrong net to keep UMass within a goal entering the third.
NU’s Donny Grover attempted to clear the puck from the crease at 4:03 by instead hit the leg of defensive partner Brian Deeth. As the puck bounced back toward Grover, he again swatted at it but this time buried it into the net for a 1-0 UMass lead. The goal was credited to UMass sophomore Kevin Jarman.
The Huskies answered one minute, 14 seconds later, this time connecting with the correct net. Guerriero banged home the rebound of a centering pass on the power play at 5:17 to knot the game at one.
“[The tying goal] was huge,” said Crowder. “[UMass' goal] wasn’t exactly an X’s and O’s type of goal so to come back after that was important.”
Late in the period, this time shorthanded, the Huskies notched the game winner. This time it was Guerriero setting up the goal, centering a pass on a two-on-two rush that linemate Mike Morris redirected beautifully over the shoulder of Winer into the top corner with 32.6 seconds remaining to give NU a 2-1 lead through two.
“I was just trying to take the goalie’s eyes away,” said Morris of his goal. “Jay [Guerriero] took a low shot, I just tipped it and it went over the goalie’s shoulder.”
It was Morris’ fifth goal in as many games, and Crowder believes that his junior winger is finally turning the corner.
“He’s really starting to come into his own,” said Crowder of Morris. “He was starting to get really frustrated in December because he was getting plenty of opportunities and nothing was going in. He’s kind of battled through that and become a dominant player in this league.”
In the third, a period in which UMass outshot NU, 7-3, it was Gibson’s turn to shine, particularly late when he stopped both Vitek, who seemingly had a wide-open net, at 15:10, and followed up by stonewalling rookie Dan Gordon on a breakaway with 3:28 remaining.
“We certainly had our share of high-quality chances,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon. “With a little bit of puck luck the game could’ve been different.
As the final buzzer sounded, thoughts turned to Monday’s Beanpot opener against Harvard, a tournament in which the Huskies will be the underdog, but an underdog amongst four solid teams.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder coming in with a win,” said Crowder. “It’s going to be a tough game because Harvard’s a terrific hockey team. We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game.”
As Northeastern preps for the Beanpot, Massachusetts now must return to action on Saturday, traveling to face last-place Merrimack. The Minutemen still sit in seventh place after Thursday’s action and will look to build a comfort zone between themselves and the Warriors, currently seven points back.