After a 4-2 loss against Merrimack a couple of weeks ago, Northeastern coach Jim Madigan called out some of his upperclassmen for taking irresponsible penalties.
At that point in the season, his club was a paltry 1-9-1. Since that night, his team won back-to-back games against Merrimack and, last Saturday, No. 3 Minnesota before a 5-1 home loss to No. 16 Providence on Wednesday.
And while the Huskies’ penalty woes are still a bit of a worry for Madigan, one thing is for sure: His team has been playing improved hockey.
Truth be told, that play began a couple of weeks earlier when a team with an 0-7 record earned a tie against a red-hot UMass-Lowell squad. That tie, however, could’ve been a win if not for some undisciplined penalties that resulted in the game-tying goal. The next night, a 5-0 loss, there were more penalties at inopportune times, specifically when the Huskies were already down a man.
“You can’t take a penalty when you’re on a five-on-four [penalty kill],” said Madigan. “We’ve given up 15 [power-play] goals, five have been on a five-on-three. And we’ve had to kill of three other five-on-threes.
“The stats are easy to point out. But we just have to stay away from it. That’s undisciplined hockey.
“A message has been sent and let’s hope everyone responds. If not, we’ll get to a point where [players] won’t play.”
If Northeastern can correct its penalty woes, it would appear the team is on a solid path back from a difficult and disappointing start. Madigan said that he likes what he has seen from his team for the last four weeks and that last Saturday’s win over Minnesota brought many aspects together that he has hoped would improve for his team.
“For us, if we’re playing well and forechecking well, we’re getting in and pressuring the puck,” Madigan said. “I thought we did a good job of executing that [against Minnesota]. They’ve got some real good defensemen back there and you don’t want to give them any time and space. We were able to get in early. They were also coming off of a [game on Friday] and we wanted to take advantage of that.”
That’s exactly what the Huskies did successfully, outshooting Minnesota 40-27. Still, it was a 2-2 game late before Kevin Roy, one of the most heralded returning players in Hockey East, lit the lamp.
The game-winning goal for Roy was just his third tally of the season but certainly was a pleasant sign for Madigan that the puck will eventually go in the net for a critical member of the offense.
“It was good to see one of your better players step up in a key situation,” said Madigan. “Kevin can do that.
“Kevin has been playing well. They haven’t been going in. He’s been getting a lot of good looks. If anything maybe just holding onto it a little too much, passing it when he should be shooting it and vice versa. But he’s been getting quality looks.”
Another major part of Northeastern’s success has been the return of No. 1 goaltender Clay Witt in goal. Madigan admitted it was frustrating to see backup Derick Roy not come away with any victories in his six decisions while Witt was injured, but it’s also good to have an all-league goaltender to give his club some confidence.
“Anytime you can get a Hockey East all-star back in your lineup and have him available, it’s going to help you,” Madigan said of Witt, who has gone 3-2 while allowing just 11 goals in his five games since returning from injury. “That confidence that our team fed off of has been positive in helping us turn things around.”
Madigan is clear that getting the three recent wins, though nice, hasn’t turned the season around. But he also hopes winning begets winning so his team can get back in the Hockey East race to have the chance to meet the team’s expectations.
Providence returning to stingy ways in net
If you were following the Providence Friars early in the season, you had every right to be concerned about the team’s defense. With arguably one of the top goaltenders in the nation returning between the pipes, seeing the Friars allow five goals to Ohio State on the opening night, six to North Dakota two weeks later and, two games after that, four more goals to Boston University was reason for alarm.
After the 4-1 home loss against BU, Providence was a paltry 1-3-1. Something needed to change. And change it did.
A renewed commitment to defense for the Friars has resulted in allowing just seven goals against in the last nine games. The team is 7-2 over that time frame (losing 1-0 to Merrimack and 2-1 to Vermont). And four of the last six decisions for Providence have been shutouts. Jon Gillies has three of those shutouts, while sophomore Nick Ellis also recorded a donut in his only start, a 1-0 win over New Hampshire.
“I think we have two outstanding goaltenders,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman, something that might be frustrating for Hockey East opponents to read given the knowledge of how strong Gillies is by himself. “The way Nick Ellis has played this year has made for some tough decisions.”
Leaman is clear that the improvement for his team from the ugly losses early to what became a team shutout streak of 223:13 through a first-period goal allowed in Wednesday’s 5-1 win over Northeastern has primarily rested on the defense.
“I don’t think by any means when we lost 6-1 to North Dakota and when we lost [4-1] to BU at home, those weren’t goaltending losses, by any means,” said Leaman. “I thought our team was really struggling playing winning hockey: making good decisions with pucks, penetrating, playing our system. We weren’t playing really good hockey in those games.”
Leaman said that he was encouraged after both of those losses that his team turned things around the next night and put forth strong performances. The ability to build off those efforts has made the team what it is today.
Still, there is a lot of room for improvement, most of which needs to occur on offense. A 5-4 opening-night loss and Wednesday’s five-goal outing are the only times the Friars have scored more than three goals. They average 2.07 goals per game, 46th of 59 in the nation.
A power play that is clicking at just 6.8 percent (5-for-73 with two short-handed goals allowed), is a major part of the struggles offensively.
“We’ve been a team that has struggled to score for whatever reason,” said Leaman. “We’re working on finishing around the net. The chances that we’re getting this year are no different than the chances we were getting last year, and we scored a lot of goals last year.
“I’d be really concerned if we weren’t getting the chances. We’ve just got to have a fearless mentality of keep shooting the puck and penetrating and attacking around the net.”
Tough stretch bites the Terriers
It is easy to sit there and say that right after Boston University ascended to the No. 1 spot in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll that things fell apart.
Doing so, one might forget that the two losses came on the back half of a five-games-in-nine-nights stretch against teams that are, in some cases, older and more experienced. That was echoed in coach David Quinn’s comments after Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Dartmouth.
“We’re the youngest team in college hockey, we just played five games in nine nights and it looked like our fifth game in nine nights,” Quinn said. “When you’re playing six or seven 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old against a team with that type of skill and maturity [like Dartmouth], it’s going to be a battle. That was the second time we’d done it back-to-back, having played Colgate [on Saturday].”
Regardless, the voters took heed of BU’s struggles last week, dropping the Terriers two spots from No. 1 to No. 3.
Nonleague success continues for Catamounts
A year ago, a Vermont team that made the NCAA tournament despite finishing tied for seventh in Hockey East did so based on a successful nonconference slate.
Last year, the Catamounts were 10-5-3 against nonleague foes, including three postseason losses in the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments combined.
This year, the Cats have picked up where they left off and are a perfect 4-0 outside of league play after sweeping two nonleague contests at Maine last weekend.
The difference this season is that Vermont, to date, has excelled inside the league as well and at 7-3-1 sits atop Hockey East. While an NCAA bid is still a long way away, knowing this team is pretty much halfway to the 22 wins that normally ensures a tournament spot has to feel good for coach Kevin Sneddon and his team.