BOSTON — After Greg Cronin’s Northeastern team, the No. 2 seed in the Hockey East quarterfinals, dropped the best-of-three series opener to seventh-seeded Massachusetts on Friday, he knew things needed to change.
Little did he know that his biggest personnel move would pay off in spades.
Cronin inserted junior Kyle Kraemer, a winger who has played just seven games since Christmas, onto the first line with Joe Vitale and Wade MacLeod, and Kraemer not only gave the line a huge energy boost, but got the Huskies’ offense started when he scored in the second period for a 1-0 lead.
From there, Northeastern played a poised, up-tempo game that translated into a 4-1 victory to force a third and deciding game on Sunday evening at 7 p.m.
Cronin said about Kraemer, whose goal Saturday was his first of the season, that he was impressed with his effort this week in practice and hoped to work him into the lineup at some point. Little did he know he would be doing so with his team on the brink of elimination, nor could he know Kraemer’s presence could be such a boost.
“[Kraemer] was the most visible guy on the ice for us tonight, particularly in the first two periods,” said Cronin. “That’s a guy who in his freshman year scored 19 or 20 points and hopefully he’s got that back in him and can give us that again tomorrow night.”
Kraemer wasn’t Northeastern’s only hero in game two, a game that both coaches admit was a bit more evenly played than the final score. Huskies’ goaltender Brad Thiessen (32 saves) was solid throughout and stellar at times, providing the perfect lift for the Huskies in a do-or-die situation.
“It was good to get into the game early and see a lot of rubber,” said Thiessen. “There were a couple of pucks to the side [that forced key saves] and a couple of two-on-ones, but other than that it was mostly shots from the outside.”
For the second straight night, the opening 20 minutes was scoreless but not lacking in quality chances, as Northeastern hit two posts (Kraemer at 7:55 and MacLeod at 8:13) and dominated possession time thanks to four power plays.
Most critical, then, for the Minutemen was the penalty kill, which did a good job of holding position both with the penalty kill forecheck and in the defensive zone, forcing the Huskies to the perimeter to eliminate grade ‘A’ chances.
The second, though probably not Northeastern’s best period in terms of scoring opportunities, it was certainly its most fortuitous. Though outshot in the period 15-12, the Huskies registered the frame’s only two goals thanks to bounces going the right way.
Kraemer’s goal got the Huskies on the board at 4:13. David Strathman’s blast from the point bounced off the end boards right to Kraemer’s stick positioned near the left post. Barely able to get a whack, Kraemer got enough puck to direct it past UMass goaltender Paul Dainton (22 saves) and into the net.
Referee John Gravallese was concerned that the puck was redirected by Kraemer’s skate, not his stick, which led him to review the play on video for two-and-a-half minutes before awarding the goal.
“I knew that I hit the puck with my backhand,” said Kraemer. “I felt it hit my stick.”
After UMass had ample shots both on a four-on-four and then on a power play, Northeastern extended the lead at 15:20. Alex Tuckerman’s shot from the right faceoff circle was saved by Dainton. The rebound came to Steve Qualier in the slot, who partially fanned on the shot, but Dainton’s momentum, expecting a harder shot, was carrying him toward the left post as the puck snuck inside the post on the right.
In the third, UMass clawed back within a goal when Matt Irwin scored his second goal of the series at 5:20. Similar to Friday, Irwin’s one-timer got UMass on the board, but unlike the previous night, the tally only pulled UMass within a goal rather than tying the game.
Still, UMass got momentum and, at times, pinned the Huskies in their defensive zone. At 12:58, fourth-line winger Shawn Saunders had the best chance to knot the game, skating two-on-one with Friday’s hero, Chris Davis. Saunders elected to shoot rather than pass and Thiessen held his ground, making the save look routine.
“[Saunders] is a left-handed shot and I didn’t think he was going to be able to get it across [to Davis],” said Thiessen. “So I was pretty sure he was going to be shooting.”
Less than a minute later, Northeastern went back on a power play, their sixth attempt of the game, and this time finally converted. Alex Tuckerman banged the rebound of Qualier’s slap shot off the left post and in at 14:04 to put a critical nail in UMass’ coffin.
Greg Costa added an empty-netter at 19:11 for the 4-1 final.
Sunday’s game three is the fourth in 21 playoff appearance for Northeastern. The record to date, though, isn’t too great, as the Huskies have lost all three previous deciding game threes, including to Vermont on the road last year.
UMass, on the other hand, has never had a series go three games in its 12 playoff appearances.
After the first two contests, it’s obvious that Sunday’s game three will be an interesting one. Now the only question that remains is which team has more left in the tank.
“Tomorrow, you’ll have two teams that are desperate,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, “The team that wants it more and plays smarter will be the one who comes out on top.”