BOSTON — Northeastern maintained its lead atop Hockey East with a 3-1 win over visiting Vermont. Wade MacLeod scored at 6:35 of the third period for the game-winner with Joe Vitale adding an empty-netter in the final minute.
Special teams dominated with all the goals coming on the power play, including 5-on-3 tallies for both sides. Arguably, Northeastern’s penalty killing unit, ranked tops in Hockey East, proved decisive, winning a strength-against-strength battle over Vermont’s second ranked power play. An early turning point came during the Huskies’ impressive kill of a five minute major late in the first period.
“Special teams decided the game,” NU coach Greg Cronin said. “[Killing] the five minute major was huge. Huge!
“The good thing about our penalty killing is that we can roll out four pairs. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys. When you can roll guys out that have done it before, there’s more poise, better decisions are being made, and you can manage those situations. If you only have two pairs that you rely on, you’re in trouble when you have to go to your third pair.”
Winners of six straight league contests, Northeastern (15-4-2, 11-2-1 HEA) now leads second place Boston University and New Hampshire by six points.
Vermont (12-5-3, 7-4-2 HEA) saw its chance to close the gap with the Huskies go by the boards.
“We weren’t able to generate much offense 5-on-5 and their penalty kill was very strong while our power play was awful,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. “We looked like we lost our skill on the power play.
“A lot of our key players had off nights. In order to beat a great team like Northeastern, you need to have a full deck of cards of everyone playing well and executing. The team that won tonight executed a lot better.”
Northeastern took a first period lead at 11:45 when two freshmen collaborated on a power-play goal just four seconds before the advantage was to expire. Alex Tuckerman fed Steve Quailer as he was cutting into the slot and Quailer roofed it for his sixth goal of the year.
The Huskies continued to have the better of it until Tyler McNeely’s five minute major and game misconduct for hitting from behind. Undaunted, the Northeastern penalty killers showed why they are Hockey East’s top-rated group, breaking up pass after pass and clearing the puck efficiently to keep a minimum of pressure on goaltender Brad Thiessen.
Although the major penalty carried over into the first minute of the second period, the Husky PK continued to shine and completed the huge kill.
The best chances in the scoreless second period came for Northeastern in the closing minute, first with a Mike Hewkin shot off the post and then a partial Vitale breakaway just before the buzzer on delayed penalty.
Long 5-on-3 advantages for both teams dominated the third period.
Vermont earned the first such opportunity with a 1:40 five-on-three starting at 3:44. The Husky penalty kill again looked strong, forcing only one tough Thiessen rebound save on Brian Roloff, until the Catamounts finally broke through. From the right faceoff circle, Roloff laced a pass through to Viktor Stalberg on the far post where he redirected it in.
With the game now tied, 1-1, the Catamounts almost gave that goal back on the resulting 5-on-4, allowing a Quailer shorthanded breakaway, surviving it when Quailer’s shot hit the knob of Rob Madore’s stick.
Northeastern got its nearly identical advantage with a 1:38 5-on-3 and similarly capitalized while two men up. The Huskies patiently worked the puck closer and closer until Wade McLeod shot from the top of the left faceoff circle and beat Madore blocker side.
“We’ve been working a lot on the power play in practice because we’ve been struggling lately,” MacLeod said. “We tried to work it down low and then work it back up top and find a shooting lane. [Steve] Silva passed me the puck and it opened up at the last moment.”
McLeod then almost made it a two-fer on the subsequent 5-on-4 advantage but Madore flashed a nice toe save to keep the score 2-1.
With 3:34 remaining in regulation, Vermont crippled its equalizing chances with another penalty, but halfway through the advantage Northeastern picked up one of its own, giving Vermont just what it wanted: about a minute of 4-on-4 followed by a power play.
Vermont pulled Madore for a 6-on-4 advantage, but Vitale picked off a pass, drove to the red line, and scored into the open net.
The two teams complete their season series on Saturday at Northeastern.