BOSTON — When looking for a hero in the deciding game of a college hockey playoff series, it’s not too often that you look to a freshman.
Unless that freshman is Northeastern’s Alex Tuckerman.
Tuckerman, who scored a big-time insurance goal in Saturday night’s 4-1 victory that forced a deciding game three, scored two goals on Sunday, including the game winner at 10:26 of overtime, as second-seeded Northeastern survived an upset bid by seventh-seeded Massachusetts, 3-2.
The winning goal came off in-zone pressure by the Huskies. Steve Quailer dished a short pass to Tuckerman, who skated from left to right. The defense paid attention to Mike McLaughlin in the slot, allowing Tuckerman to walk out front and fire a quick shot that deflected off a UMass defender’s stick and sailed over the left shoulder of goalie Paul Dainton (36 saves) and under the crossbar shortside to send the Matthews Arena crowd of 3,722 into pandemonium.
“I don’t remember much. I kind of blacked out,” laughed the young Tuckerman. “I just walked out front and next thing I know I was on the ground celebrating.”
The win advanced Northeastern to the Hockey East final four for the first time since 1994, a 15-year drought which, until Sunday, was the longest current such stretch in the league. The Huskies will face No. 5 Mass.-Lowell, which swept Vermont in its quarterfinal series, in the 5:00 p.m. game of the Hockey East semifinals at the TD Banknorth Garden on Friday. Top-seeded Boston University, a 6-1 winner over Maine on Sunday, will face No. 6 seed Boston College in the nightcap.
The victory hardly came easy for the Huskies, who had to overcome a 1-0 deficit and then recover after surrendering the tying goal in the final minute of regulation to force overtime.
“We went from agony with 30 seconds left to pure ecstasy,” said Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin, who admitted it was a challenge to refocus his team after losing the lead late in regulation. “As a staff, we let the guys relax before the overtime and then we went back to the X’s and O’s that we talked about in our pre-game meeting at 5:30.”
The OT winner rendered moot an impressive effort by a pesky UMass team, which took game one, 2-1, and battled back with a yeoman’s effort on Sunday after falling in game two.
“That was a really tough loss for us,” said UMass head coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon. “We had the puck luck at the end of the game and [Northeastern] had it in overtime. But they deserved it. They’re a great college hockey team.”
For the third straight night, neither team could find the back of the net in the opening period. Northeastern held a 13-9 advantage in shots and had the best of the scoring opportunities surviving an early onslaught by the Minutemen and plastering Dainton with rubber in the final minutes of the period.
The best bid came when Jim Driscoll blasted a shot from the left faceoff dot. The original shot was saved by Dainton, but the puck squirted to Wade MacLeod at the left post who fired a quick shot aimed at the short side only to hit the left pipe.
In the second, UMass broke the deadlock during a five-on-three power play at 2:06. Matt Irwin, who already had two goals in the series, blasted a shot from the point that Northeastern goaltender Brad Thiessen (35 saves) stopped. The rebound came to James Marcou at the left point but, facing an open net, he missed entirely. NU defenseman Denis Chisholm attempted to catch the puck as it bounded past the far post but instead knocked it right back into the net to bring an eruption to the vocal section of UMass supporters.
UMass couldn’t capitalize on the remainder of the power play, which gave Northeastern back some momentum. Controlling the puck in the offensive zone led to UMass penalties, the first at 5:56 to John Wessbecker for interference, where NU’s David Strathman hit a post on the Huskies best bid. A second penalty to Cory Quirk at 9:15 for hitting from behind saw the Huskies finally capitalize.
Tuckerman fired a shot through a screen from the right faceoff dot that beat Dainton high blocker side at 10:51 to draw Northeastern even.
Before the fans could finish celebrating, NU grabbed the lead 38 seconds later. Chris Donovan blocked a shot at the defensive blueline and sent Ryan Ginand off to the races on a three-on-one. Ginand elected instead of passing to use the room the defenseman gave him and walk in alone, firing a shot under the crossbar at 11:29 to bring Matthews Arena to its loudest decibel level of the weekend — at least until the game winner. It was Ginand’s 20th goal of the season.
“It’s a good time to get him back in the groove,” said Cronin of Ginand, who hadn’t scored a goal since February 13, a span of eight games.
In the third, it looked like the Huskies would escape having never really given the Minutemen a quality chance to knot the game. There were bids by the Minutemen, who finished the third with 12 shots, but most didn’t require Thiessen to make anything but routine saves.
With 1:14 remaining, Cahoon called his timeout and set up a faceoff play that nearly backfired. He left Dainton in the net pending winning the draw. Once the UMass center won the neutral zone faceoff, instead of skating to gain the blueline or firing the puck to the corner to dump and chase, the player shot the puck on net.
Thiessen calmly gloved the shot and began the transition towards the empty net. Donovan had a clear shot but a hustling James Marcou dove from behind to break up the shot and send the Minutemen the other way.
After playing with the puck around the perimeter in the zone, Marcou set up Irwin for a one-timer that beat Thiessen cleanly blocker side with 34.8 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime, tied at 2.
In the extra session, UMass had ample chances early including a bid by T.J. Syner at 2:25 that required Thiessen to make a quick pad save.
But the Huskies remained poised, tilted the ice in their favor and then let Tuckerman play the role of hero with his third goal of the series and seventh of the season.
“That’s a great way for our seniors to finish out a great career here at Matthews Arena,” said Cronin. “The enjoyment for me is for the seniors. Just a great way to finish their last game at Matthews.”