Women’s D-I: Northeastern has a youth movement leading it to success

Alina Müller of Northeastern (Northeastern Athletics)
Alina Müller of Northeastern (Northeastern Athletics)

The youth are leading a revolution at Northeastern, which is off to its best Hockey East start in program history. They’ve won six straight to give them a 6-0-1 beginning to the conference season.

Last season, they won their first-ever Women’s Hockey East Tournament Championship and earned just their second-ever berth into the NCAA tournament. It was an improbable trip to the national tournament for the Huskies, who finished the year with an 11-11-2 WHEA record. They became just the second team in Hockey East history to reach the conference championship game as the No. 4 seed.

It was another step forward for this program, which earned their first NCAA berth just two years prior.

Seven seniors graduated from the squad, including the top two scorers, McKenna Brand and Denisa Křížová, two players with numerous entries in the program’s history books. The 2018-19 roster features eight freshmen. Fifteen of the 25 women skating for Northeastern are underclassmen.

Though the Huskies have shown impressive firepower on offense, it’s been defense and goaltending that have helped carry this team. They’ve allowed just three total goals over the past five games and are averaging a mere 1.20 goals-against average, good for fourth in the county. Senior captain Brittany Bugalski and sophomore Aerin Frankel have evenly split time in net and have provided a huge confidence boost for this team.

“It starts with the goaltending; we work a lot on our D-zone,” said coach Dave Flint after Northeastern’s 2-1 win over Boston University on Sunday. “Earlier in the year we weren’t playing that well in our own end, and I think we’ve really cleaned it up. We’re competing more. We’re doing the little things right. It shows by how few goals we’ve given up. Teams play different in front of goalies they have confidence in. Right now, they have confidence in Aerin and Brittany, and the team’s playing well in front of them.”

The Huskies have been particularly impressive on the penalty kill, allowing just one power-play goal all season, good for third in the nation. They haven’t allowed an opponent to score on the advantage in their last 31 attempts.

Much of that starts with the goalies, who Flint said are giving the Huskies a chance to win every night, but Northeastern has also changed strategy on special teams, especially the penalty kill.

“We tweaked our forecheck a little bit,” said Flint. “We’re going more aggressive instead of sitting back. We’re making teams make plays against us. And if they make a good play and score, credit to them, but we’re going to make teams earn goals on PK.”

Going on the aggressive is a bit of a style change for the Huskies, but it stems from being able to be confident in the goaltender. The players are able to play more freely and feel like they can make mistakes when they know they have a solid line of defense behind them.

The aggressive nature has already paid off with two short-handed goals as well. The Huskies have had the speed on offense to look for those opportunities in the past, but their more aggressive forecheck means there are even more chances to make a break for it.

The solid defense is not the only notable part of this year’s Northeastern squad. Rookies Alina Mueller and Chloe Aurard have combined with sophomores Veronika Pettey and Brooke Hobson to create a potent offensive threat for the Huskies. More than that, contributions are coming from across the board. Eight different players are averaging at least .50 points per game.

Early on, the scoring was coming from a few players, but as the season has progressed, more of the team has been able to contribute, and the scoring isn’t focused just on a few players or the power play. As they’ve gained confidence, the offense has been able to find more room in front of the net. That’s given them more second- and third-chance opportunities, and they’ve not been letting those go by.

“Everybody’s contributing; we’re not relying heavy on one line,” said Flint after Friday’s 2-0 win over Providence. The Huskies lost all three meetings with the Lady Friars last season. “It’s kind of spread out, which is nice. If we’re going to continue to be successful here, we’re going to need that to continue throughout the year.”

It’s been a breakout start to the season for Pettey, who had six goals and seven assists through the first nine games. That’s nearly half the 27 points she put up over 39 games her rookie year. Her eight-game point streak to open the season was halted Tuesday at Vermont.

As expected, freshman Mueller has also been an incredible addition to this team. She has transitioned quickly to the college game, starting the season with four goals and seven assists in 11 games. Mueller came to Boston with quite a résumé. At 15, she became the youngest hockey player to ever medal at the Olympics when she won bronze with Switzerland in 2014. She followed that up in Pyeongchang by leading the tournament with 10 points in six games. She was named “Best Forward” of the tournament. All this before her 20th birthday.

Now she’s helping to lead a team that looks to be solidifying the Huskies as a team to look out for in Hockey East. They’re having unprecedented success, and there’s nothing but time and opportunity for this squad to continue to improve.