Hockey East play proving that Northeastern has to be 'better than average' to pick up wins

Dylan Sikura (NU - 9) The Northeastern University Huskies defeated the Bentley University Falcons 7-3 in their home opener at Matthews Arena on Saturday, October 15, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Dylan Sikura is a Chicago draftee and second-leading scorer this season for Northeastern (photo: Melissa Wade).

It certainly has been a topsy-turvy type of year in Hockey East.

And for the league’s top teams, there has been no immunization from those types of roller coaster experiences.

Northeastern has hardly been immune to the bumps in the road. Early in the season, the Huskies were swept by Quinnipiac despite holding the lead entering the third both nights.

A few weeks back, red hot Boston College came to Matthews Arena and slowed the dominant NU offense in a 4-1 BC win. Then after taking Thanksgiving weekend off, the Huskies headed on the road to Connecticut and suffered another 4-1 loss at the hands of the other Huskies.

Thus, last weekend’s home-and-home series against Merrimack became a bit of a gut check for a Northeastern team that boasts the fourth best offense in the nation, averaging 3.53 goals per game.

On Friday, coach Jim Madigan shuffled his lines a bit, splitting up what had been a pretty dynamic duo of Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura. The result was a 3-1 win, though neither exploded on the night. It was the third line of Lincoln Griffin, John Picking and Bobby Hampton that popped two of the three goals.

One night later, not only were Gaudette and Sikura back together, but they were joined by the third offensive weapon, Nolan Stevens, a guy who missed half of last season due to injury and thus has become somewhat overlooked to the average college hockey fan.

Together, the trio scored once at even strength and, as a unit, potted two goals on the power play.

The shifting of lines, particularly when it results in wins, makes coach Jim Madigan look like a chess player. He tends to think it’s a little simpler than that.

“We going to [shift lines] throughout the course of the year,” said Madigan. “We just thought [at Merrimack] getting those three guys together and giving us an offensive spark.

“Part of it is that when you go on the power play, usually the power plays are because of them (Gaudette, Sikura and Stevens) being on the ice because they’re drawing attention. This way, if they are on together, either they stay out together or we give them a rest. That was the thinking.”

Regardless, it worked in spades with the unit generating two of the three goals.

The story, though, not only last Saturday but also the weekend wasn’t offense, but defense. A constant point of emphasis for this Northeastern team, the Huskies limited Merrimack to just two goals over the two nights despite surrendering 29 shots each evening.

A big part of that was the play of Cayden Primeau. The freshman has been up and down in terms of results but has numbers (.920 save percentage, 2.06 GAA) that shows better-than-average play.

Against Merrimack, that “better-than-average” translated to wins.

“Cayden Primeau was awesome for the whole weekend,” said Madigan. “[Merrimack goes] hard to the net and he stood his ground and looked good.”

Hockey East and Team USA (and other national teams)

The Olympics are still nearly two months away so if may be a little early to be talking about Hockey East players skating for Team USA (or Team Canada or another foreign country) in South Korea. Though this week’s development that will ban Team Russia from participating in this year’s Olympic Games could have a trickle-down impact on Hockey East.

It’s likely that Team USA planned (still plans?) to rely upon as many as seven players from Russia’s pro league, the KHL, to fill its Olympic roster, including former Boston University standout and Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy, who currently plays for Jokerit. With the ban on Team Russia, there is a distinct possibility that the KHL, similar to the NHL, will not allow players to participate in this year’s Olympic games.

Team USA isn’t the only country relying upon KHL players to fill their roster. Reports are that as many as 17 spots on Team Canada might have been taken by Canadian nationals playing on KHL teams.

The void created by the loss of KHL athletes could create some open roster spots for current U.S. collegians, including a handful of players on Hockey East rosters.

As a potential harbinger, one might look at the preliminary rosters for this year’s IIHF World Junior Championship. For Team USA, that roster includes five Hockey East players – including all three goaltenders. BU’s Jake Oettinger, Boston College’s Joseph Woll and Maine’s Jeremy Swayman comprise the entire World Junior goaltending for Team USA. Also rostered are forwards Patrick Harper and Brady Tkachuk. Team Canada will employ the services of BU’s Dante Fabbro.

Many college teams would return to playing games during that tournament, likely the weekend after Christmas. But Boston University, strategic or not, has left the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s open and possibly would only be absent players for the Jan. 6 game against Maine (the final day of the World Junior tournament is Jan. 5).

The Terriers, and other Hockey East teams that might possibly lose players to the Olympics, won’t have the same scheduling luxury. Anyone on a World Junior roster could impress enough to head to Olympus. But other older players, like BU’s Jordan Greenway, Providence’s Erik Foley and both Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura (a Team Canada prospect) from Northeastern, just to name a few, might be swiped for a chance at Olympic gold.

There’s no way of protecting a schedule against the Olympics like you might the World Juniors. Though this is nothing like the last time college players participated in the Olympics way back in 1994, where players would leave their teams for the entire season, college teams will be without the services of the top players for as much as three weeks – all coming in the early days of February when clubs are jockeying for playoff position.

Certainly, there are no guarantees that the Olympics will have a sweeping impact on the NCAA. There are a relative number of talented players in the American Hockey League that can be part of national rosters. And there is the chance that the KHL will ultimately allow their players to participate in the Olympics.

But the KHL’s ultimate decision could have a major impact on the NCAA – and Hockey East – in the month of February. Something to certainly keep an eye on in the weeks ahead.