CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — For 142 days, the No. 4 Northeastern Huskies have held onto first place in Hockey East. After a 4-1 loss against No. 20 Boston College, that still may not be enough.
The Huskies, who have been atop the league standings since the first day of league play, seemed like a team of destiny, particularly after rallying to tie the game in the final minute Friday night against the Eagles before winning in overtime.
However, that destiny is now out of their control, as No. 1 Boston University, sitting one point back, will play its final game on Sunday afternoon against Providence needing a win to capture the Hockey East title outright. A Terriers tie would result in co-champions and BU taking the number one seed in the playoffs, while a loss would give Northeastern its first league title in the 25-year history of Hockey East.
“It just stinks,” said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin about his team’s situation. “To go from start to finish in first place and play like we did tonight, it just stinks.”
Northeastern’s pain in Saturday’s season finale was the play of its special teams. Though the Huskies scored a five-on-three goal in the opening period, they finished the game 1-for-10 with the man advantage and allowed BC three power-play goals.
The fact that winning the special teams battle translated into a win was music to the ears of BC head coach Jerry York, particularly in light of Friday’s last-minute loss.
“It was really a difficult bus ride [Friday] night,” said York. “We thought we played really well and well enough to maybe squeak out a 1-0 win, but [Northeastern] just persevered.
“It was hard to sleep last night.”
York will sleep well on Saturday, thanks to multi-point performances from four players (Brock Bradford, Cam Atkinson, each with a goal and two assists; Benn Ferriero with a goal and assist; Tim Kunes with two assists) and a solid performance by goaltender John Muse (24 saves) in net.
“Johnny [Muse] stepped up his game,” said York. “He hasn’t been putting up the numbers he’s accustomed to but the last two weekends, he’s been much sharper.”
The game certainly didn’t start out according to script for the Huskies, as Chris Donovan was whistled for a five-minute major and game misconduct for hitting from behind at 2:33 of the first. The BC power play, though, looked sluggish and Northeastern escaped unscathed.
Later in the frame, the Huskies got on the board by capitalizing with the man advantage. BC’s Ferriero joined Andrew Orpik in the penalty box, setting up a two-man advantage for Northeastern, and it took just four seconds for David Strathman to one-time a Joe Vitale pass to get the Huskies on the board at 9:12.
That, though, was the final celebration of the night for the strong contingent from Northeastern that balanced the sellout crowd of 7,884 at Kelley Rink.
BC answered with a power play goal of its own. After Steve Silva was whistled for hooking at 12:46, Cam Atkinson fired a bad-angle shot that beat NU goaltender Brad Thiessen (21 saves) just under the crossbar. Northeastern argued that the puck hit the crossbar, but referee John Gravallese, situated in perfect position, emphatically signaled goal. As the game was not televised, there was no replay review and the goal stood.
The Eagles outshot Northeastern in the first, 9-5, but could only come out of the frame with a 1-1 tie.
In the second, though, it was all Eagles on the scoreboard.
An early penalty 51 seconds into the second to Northeastern’s Jim Driscoll put the Eagles back on the power play and allowed them to grab their first lead of the night.
Bradford one-timed a pass from Tim Kunes from the top of the left faceoff dot over Thiessen’s glove at 1:20 to put the Eagles in front, 2-1.
The Huskies had their chances to pull even, most notably back-to-back breakaways by Dennis McCauley and Russ Guzior at 10:06 and 11:00, respectively. While Muse stopped the first attempt, Guzior had Muse beat with a beautiful deke but lost the puck as he was about to shoot.
After that, the Eagles seized control of the game. Jimmy Hayes scored his first goal since November 22, firing a shot off the back of Thiessen’s left leg from behind the net at 13:31, and at 14:57, BC grabbed a 4-1 lead when Benn Ferriero buried a rebound on the power play.
In the third, BC gift-wrapped a perfect opportunity for the Huskies to get back into the game when Nick Petricki was whistled for a five-minute major and game misconduct for hitting from behind. Northeastern, though, struggled to penetrate the Eagles defense and when they did, ran into a brick wall in Muse.
The Eagles may hope that the weekend series is a sign of history repeating itself. A year ago, BC lost in overtime to Northeastern on Friday night of the final weekend but rallied for the win on Saturday to earn the final playoff home ice spot. That Eagles team never lost again on its way to the national championship.
This year, though, the road will be markedly tougher. BC will travel to New Hampshire next weekend for the Hockey East quarterfinals. The Eagles dropped the season series, 2-1, to the Wildcats and were massively outplayed in a two-game sweep for UNH late in the season.
For the Huskies, now it’s about waiting. If Providence is able to upset BU on Sunday, Northeastern will take the top seed and face Maine at home in the opening round of the playoffs. Otherwise, NU will play UMass as the second seed.
Sunday will tell whether or not Northeastern indeed has been a team of destiny when it comes to the regular season crown, but for Cronin, knowing destiny was in their hands on Saturday makes the loss all that more difficult.
“It’s just tough to lose when you put yourself in position to control your own destiny,” said Cronin.