If you’re wondering why Northeastern looks so comfortable these days, realize one thing: This team has been there before.
Despite a 1-11-2 start to this season, the Huskies are 13-2-3 since a 3-2 overtime loss to UMass-Lowell the day after Thanksgiving. You can appropriately tag the Huskies the hottest team in Hockey East, riding a five-game winning streak and having not lost in league play since Dec. 6.
It’s like déjà vu all over again.
A year ago, Northeastern began the year 0-8-1 before turning things around to go 16-6-3 down the stretch.
Digging holes isn’t the preferred approach for any coach, particularly not in two consecutive seasons as Jim Madigan’s club has executed. But for this bench boss, there is certainly a silver lining.
“Our team is in a good spot,” said Madigan. “But what I like about it is that, because we dug ourselves such a huge hole, our kids know and appreciate how hard you have to work each week to be able to compete and play well on the weekends.”
As was mentioned in this space on Jan. 14, Northeastern’s turnaround began back in November, when the team headed to Belfast for the Friendship Four. It was before that weekend that Madigan challenged his team to play better defense. He knew that two weeks prior both Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges went down with serious injuries. Although Roy returned in the second half, Hedges is out for the remainder of the year.
With those absences in the lineup, Madigan felt his team had to strengthen its play away from the puck. Strong defense would translate to more puck possession and, hopefully over time, more offense.
The philosophy worked and one of the leaders in the movement to defensive responsibility was senior Mike McMurtry.
A decent role player for his first three years at Northeastern, McMurtry’s game changed. His play away from the puck improved and, probably not so ironically, so did his play when he had the puck. Having registered just a single assist in 13 games before Belfast, McMurtry has since potted seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points in a span of 18 games. Included in that was a career-best nine-game scoring streak that produced three goals and 11 assists.
“He has always had great habits and details to his game,” Madigan said of McMurtry. “He’s decided to be a lot more assertive to his offense and play with confidence. That’s what he did beginning in Northern Ireland and he’s been on this wonderful streak.”
A player Madigan calls a quiet leader, McMurtry saw much of his improvement when matched with linemates Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura, a group created by the injuries to Hedges and Roy.
And then there is McMurtry’s personal contribution to the Huskies’ team defense. How much has their back end improved? The Huskies allowed three or more goals in 12 of the 14 games in that 1-11-2 start. Since the calendar turned to 2016, Northeastern has allowed three goals twice: once to current No. 1 Quinnipiac in a 3-3 tie and also during the Beanpot semifinals, where an empty-net goal gave Boston University a 3-1 win.
“McMurtry’s play away from the puck has been really good,” said Madigan. “Our emphasis has been away from the puck. And because of that our offense has increased. We weren’t scoring a lot of goals [early in the season], either. When we began defending better and playing away from the puck better, our offense improved dramatically.”
With one weekend remaining, where we stand
Little has been decided in the Hockey East standings, despite that each team has just two games remaining in the regular season. If you haven’t had a chance to look at it or don’t feel like switching to the schedule page, here is the schedule for this weekend (all series are Friday and Saturday):
• First-place Boston College plays fourth-place UMass-Lowell in a home-and-home series beginning Friday at BC.
• Second-place Providence plays last-place Massachusetts in a home-and-home series beginning Friday at UMass.
• Third-place Notre Dame hosts a two-game series against fifth-place Boston University.
• Sixth-place Northeastern hosts a two-game series against 10th- place (tied) Maine.
• Seventh-place Vermont travels to ninth-place Merrimack for a two-game series.
• Eighth-place New Hampshire plays 10th-place (tied) Connecticut in a home-and-home series beginning Friday at UConn.
Based on that, here are the floors and ceilings for each club in terms of standings. Also included are things to watch for this final weekend of the regular season.
What to watch for: BC is in the catbird seat, controlling its destiny, but a series with UMass-Lowell hardly delivers guarantees. Two points is great news for BC fans as the Eagles would clinch at least a share of the regular season championship, but unless the Eagles take at least three points there is no way to guarantee the top overall seed.
What to watch for: Providence did wonders last weekend against Notre Dame and now has a chance at the regular season title against a struggling UMass team that hasn’t won a league game since before Veteran’s Day. That said, the Friars still need help from Lowell to tie or overtake Boston College. The good news for Friars fans is that the team has already locked up a first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals.
What to watch for: Saying Notre Dame has a chance at the regular season title is like saying Ben Carson has a chance to be the Republican presidential nominee. Notre Dame would have to get a minimum of three points at home against Boston University (very possible, no doubt) but would then need both Boston College and Providence to get swept (see above; both of those aren’t happening). For Notre Dame, this weekend needs to be about locking up a first-round bye and solidifying its position in the PairWise Rankings.
What to watch for: With Boston University and UMass-Lowell each posting identical 11-5-4 marks coming into this weekend, you can already see tiebreaker scenarios coming into play. There is one thing that is clear: Should both BU and Lowell get swept this weekend, BU would take the fourth seed based on the third tiebreaker — record against the first-place team. BU’s tie with Boston College on Jan. 16 would be enough to earn that tiebreaker win because the River Hawks would be 0-2 against BC. The Terriers also can lock up the spot by sweeping Notre Dame, although explaining that would probably take me a column in and of itself.
What to watch for: Yes, maybe it is good news that the fluctuation for the River Hawks is no more than a spot in the standings. But that spot carries with it a first-round bye and quarterfinal home ice. But while that is important, more important this weekend is what two wins could do to Lowell’s NCAA tournament resume. Sweep the Eagles and there is potential for a major move in the PairWise.
What to watch for: There is nothing in the standings that Northeastern has to worry about. All the Huskies can do this weekend is stay hot and continue to play their best hockey down the stretch.
What to watch for: You can almost group Vermont with New Hampshire, Merrimack and Maine, but the reality is, with 15 points, the Catamounts hold the cards. Two points and Vermont will host a first-round playoff series. But the wrong end of a sweep, and it’s entirely likely Vermont will go on the road in the opening round. Otherwise, as you’ll see below, there’s little you can do about positioning as the jumble between seventh and 11th place makes it impossible to predict a first-round opponent.
New Hampshire, Merrimack and Maine
What to watch for: The reality is these teams all have the same floor and ceiling, but it is clear that New Hampshire’s 14 points to Merrimack’s 13 and Maine’s 12 gives the Wildcats a major leg up. All UNH has to do to clinch first-round home ice is each two more points. Merrimack also controls its destiny, needing a sweep of Vermont or some help from others. Maine could, in concept, jump as many as four spots but will have to do so against red-hot Northeastern.
What to watch for: Home ice is still a possibility for the Huskies but would require a sweep of New Hampshire along with multiple other outcomes from the teams in front. If anything, UConn’s best hope is to simply not finish 11th to set up a series at Northeastern, a team that swept UConn convincingly last weekend.
What to watch for: UMass would need to sweep Providence and hope UNH sweeps UConn to move out of the cellar. That has the likelihood of Carly Fiorina winning the nods from the Republicans. In other words, it’s not happening. UMass needs to focus on playing good hockey and preparing for a series with either Notre Dame, BU or Lowell.