This Week in Hockey East: Northeastern finding its stride, wants to ‘stay in the moment’

The Huskies celebrate their win. - The visiting Northeastern University Huskies defeated the Boston College Eagles 5-2 on Saturday, December 9, 2017, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.The visiting Northeastern University Huskies defeated the Boston College Eagles 5-2 on Saturday, December 9, 2017, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Northeastern celebrates its win over Boston College back on Dec. 9, 2017 (photo: Melissa Wade).

The latest team in the Hockey East driver’s seat is now Northeastern.

Last weekend, the Huskies swept one of the hottest teams in hockey, Maine, to extend their own hot streak to 7-0-2. Coupled with Boston College’s loss to Providence, Northeastern is only a point out of first place and holds a game in hand over BC. The Huskies also hold a three-point lead over the third-place Friars.

“I don’t think we’ve peaked,” NU coach Jim Madigan said. “I mean, hopefully you don’t peak ’til March, and there’s still a lot to our game that we have to get better at. Our kids know that and we’ll continue just to strive, stay in the moment and get better each and every game and each and every day at practice.”

A close look at the Huskies shows one reason after another for them to finish on top of Hockey East. They’ve boasted the league’s top offense pretty much from game one, averaging 3.68 goals a game. Supercharging that offense is a power play that converts at 28 percent, tops in the country.

“We’ve probably had the top power play in terms of percentage or goals scored the last three years,” Madigan said. “Dylan Sikura, Adam Gaudette and Nolan Stevens have been on the top unit over the last couple of years, and you’ve got some shooters there, but they’re very unselfish when it comes to finding the open man and moving the puck around. Sometimes, I wish they’d be a little bit more selfish in and around the net, but we’re always looking for that best option.

“That obviously helps provide momentum in our five-on-five play. We’re also starting to get some secondary scorers. Brandon Hawkins became eligible in December, and he’s got three goals and eight points in six games. Grant Jozefek and other forwards are coming around to give us that secondary scoring that we need.”

The other, potentially more important, factor that makes Northeastern so dangerous is that they’ve also got Hockey East’s second-best team defense.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on getting better in our own zone,” Madigan said. “It starts coming back into our zone off the back check and back pressure, and our defensemen move pucks really quickly, transitioning pucks, and exiting our zones as quickly as we can.

“We’re limiting the opposition shots and quality opportunities, which is the key. We’ve reduced our goals against significantly from last year to this year, and we need that to continue for us to be successful.”

Of course, a defense only goes as far as its goaltender. Add one more reason to like Northeastern’s chances. Freshman goaltender Cayden Primeau has taken over the position, playing every game since Nov. 28, and going undefeated in that time. He ranks in the top two or three within the league in every statistical category. And none of that is a surprise to Madigan.

“Everything he’s doing, we expected,” Madigan said. “He’s been a top goalie at the USA-15 level, -16 level, and -17 level. He backstopped the US team in the World Junior A challenge to a gold medal.

“He’s been as advertised. He knows how to prepare, he’s balanced, he’s even-keeled, and he’s humble. He’s open and receptive to coaching and he just keeps getting better each and every day at practice.

“So, am I surprised that he’s playing this way? No, because we expected it, but hey, it’s still a tough transition and so we’re really happy. We knew what we were getting.”

Arguably, the one possible Achilles’ heel for the team is the penalty kill. While every other statistic ranks first, second, or third in the league, the Huskies’ PK ranks ninth at 77.5 percent (albeit with better numbers in league play, sixth and 80.4). And it’s not as though the numbers are trending in the right direction. The PK has surrendered goals in the last four games (a cumulative 4-for-13).

Madigan, however, isn’t so sure those numbers capture the picture accurately.

“Early in the year, I would say that we didn’t have an identity to our penalty kills,” he said. “We’ve got an identity now.

“And as you know, figures lie and liars figure. Stats always don’t give you the full understanding, the breadth of where you are. Yes, we have given up a goal in the last four games, but I like where our penalty killing is now.”

Madigan points out that one of the goals surrendered was an extra attacker, six-on-four goal, and there have also been fluky caroms off blocked shots.

“We all look at the percentages, but it’s also the timing of your penalty kills,” he said. “We’ve killed off some big penalties in the third period, and that’s given us momentum to move forward.

“I like where our penalty killing is now.”

The sweep over Maine did vault the Huskies into the NCAA tournament bubble. They now stand 13th in the PairWise, with Providence the only other Hockey East team to be within the Top 16, at ninth. (This is due to the poor nonconference results Jim and I have bemoaned all season.)

On the bubble is a treacherous position to be in, but it’s as far from Madigan and the team’s focus as possible.

“All we’re worried about is UMass on Friday night,” he says. “Two years ago, we had our meteoric finish to the season. We couldn’t look at PairWise then.

“We understand its importance, we understand the significance of each game and how that plays into the PairWise, but we’re coaching and our kids are playing to the opposition who we play each and every night. If we take care of business, the PairWise will be there for us at the end of the season.”

The “middle of the pack,” plus another team makes its move

It’s easy to see where the top four Hockey East teams are really positioned in the standings since Boston College has played 15 league games and Northeastern, Providence, and UMass Lowell have played 14. Pretty clear cut.

Not so in the middle of the standings where a team like UMass holds five games in hand–five!–over Boston University and Connecticut, and that number was six until Tuesday night’s loss at Maine.

There’s a lot at stake for those “middle” teams with this year’s playoff format. The top five receive byes while teams six, seven, and eight host first-round series with nine, 10, and 11. Finishing fifth instead of sixth is a huge deal. Same with eighth versus ninth.

Merrimack, currently in eighth place in terms of points, holds three games in hand over BU and UConn, but gives up two to UMass. So the Warriors’ picture remains murky. They have, however, made a big move in recent games.

They came out of the break stunning second-ranked Denver, 3-2, then in league action defeated UConn twice, sandwiched around a loss to Providence. Those two wins could easily be the difference between hosting that first-round series and going on the road. (UConn is technically in seventh place, one point ahead, but as noted above, now gives Merrimack three games in hand and the head-to-head tiebreaker.)

“We’ve been playing a lot better than our record, to be honest,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “Our first 10 games in league, seven of them were against Boston College, Providence, and Northeastern. So we didn’t get any breaks with the schedule, and I don’t know that I did a great job of non-conference [scheduling] by adding at-Denver, at-Duluth for two, and at-Colgate for two.

“We’ve played pretty well and haven’t gotten rewarded. We had to try to maintain a positive attitude in the locker room, and we felt that things would start to turn. And they have.

“So we’re excited. We think we can make a second-half push here.”

Dennehy will be looking for more of the senior leadership and production he’s gotten so far. Jace Hennig and Brett Seney lead the scoring with 20 points each, and defenseman Jared Kolquist follows with another 16.

“Jared Kolquist is having an outstanding offensive season as a senior,” Dennehy said. “Brett Seney has always been there offensively for us, and he’s rounded out his game defensively. Jace Hennig really goes under the radar with a lot of people, but he’s a real good, smart, two-way hockey player, who can do a little bit of everything.

“And that’s leaving out Marc Biega, who we think might be one of our best defensive defensemen, and [junior] Ludvid Larson, who is quietly having a really strong year for us. Great on faceoffs and probably our best 200-foot player.

“So we felt our older guys were strong and could help carry the load, and that’s been the case so far.”

A major pleasant surprise from a player with almost no experience has been junior goaltender Craig Pantano. In two years, he’d seen all of 37 minutes of action, but when starter Collin Delia left in the late summer, a canyon-sized gap resulted. Pantano has taken advantage of that opportunity and then some, ranking fourth in the league in both goals-against average and save percentage.

When asked about Pantano’s success, Dennehy draws an amusing parallel.

“People love to mention how much of a genius move it was for the Patriots to draft Tom Brady in the sixth round, but if they really knew how good he was, why’d they wait until the sixth round to draft him?” Dennehy asked.

Um, yes, maybe Pantano did warrant more than 37 minutes those first two years.

“The most important statistic in goaltending is wins, and Craig has done a good job of getting in there and getting some W’s,” Dennehy says. “The guys have responded to him in the net, and the other two guys, [Drew Vogler and Logan Halladay] are pushing him as well. So it’s nice to have that position solidified.”

Scoring has admittedly been hard to come by at times. The team ranks tenth in scoring. However, a power play that trails only Northeastern’s in efficiency (21.1 percent) often sparks that offense.

“Our power play is dangerous,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got two units that if teams take too many penalties, we’re going to score some goals. At the very least, we’re going to gain some momentum.”

As noted earlier, a lot is at stake with playoff positioning, but Dennehy and his players can’t be distracted by that.

“If I lose focus on the game, then our players will as well,” he said. “We’re really going game-to-game and trying to just prepare for each opponent.

“We’re well aware [of what’s at stake]. Home ice for us is important because I don’t think people like coming to Lawler [Arena]. Flat out. I don’t think there are a lot of teams, not just in our league, but in the country, that like to come to Lawler. And our record over the last 8 to 10 years speaks volumes to that as well.

“It’s a tough place to play. We like playing there, so obviously getting home ice is one of the goals of our program.”

Travis Roy: Quadriplegia and a Life of Purpose

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