By Gordon Weigers, news staff
If someone told you three months ago that the Northeastern University (NU) men’s hockey team was going to host a first-round playoff series in Hockey East, you’d question if that person even knew what a hockey puck was. But with back-to-back wins against the University of Connecticut (UConn) last weekend, the now 14-13-5 Huskies have clinched the sixth seed in Hockey East and are slated to host a playoff series at Matthews Arena in early March.
NU took down UConn 5-2 on Friday and 4-1 on Saturday in a home-and-home series. Now with 14 votes in the national poll, the Huskies have an opportunity to use the Hockey East playoffs as a springboard to land in the NCAA tournament.
Freshman goalie Ryan Ruck held UConn to three goals over two games. The series marked the third-straight weekend in which opponents could not find a way to beat him more than three times, and Ruck’s performance earned him the Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Week nod for the second time this season. Ruck’s 12 wins are the third-most among freshmen goalkeepers this season. His 11 wins since Jan. 1 are the second-most of any goalie in the country.
On the blueline, sophomore defenseman Garret Cockerill added to his point streak with a goal. The sophomore has tallied seven points in his last five games. Cockerill’s power-play strike on Saturday night opened the scoring in the second period, providing the Huskies the momentum that they would use to win the game.
“He shoots the puck really well,” head coach Jim Madigan said. “He’s got the ability to get pucks to the net, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
After a dry start to the season, senior forward Kevin Roy has scored four goals in his last four games and is showing shades of the player who was a Hobey Baker Award nominee last season. After returning from an injury, Roy struggled to get back into form. He was being knocked off of pucks, and he wasn’t skating with his usual speed. Now, Roy is gaining his confidence back just in time for the postseason.
“I just want to keep going and help the team,” Roy said. “I think we’re heating up at the right moment heading into the last weekend and the playoffs.”
On Friday night in Storrs, Conn., UConn got on the board early to make it a 1-0 game less than three minutes in. After conceding the first goal, NU took off and left Connecticut in the dust. Goals from forwards sophomore Nolan Stevens, freshman Patrick Schule, senior Mike McMurtry and Roy boosted the Huskies to a 4-1 lead after the first period. After UConn cut the Northeastern lead to 4-2, Roy buried his second goal of the game to make it 5-2. Ruck picked up his 11th win on the year, making 16 saves on 18 shots.
Saturday night’s action saw the rival packs of Huskies finish the first period tied at 0-0, each with seven shots on goal and each having won seven faceoffs.
After such a symmetrical first period, Northeastern broke the scoreless tie. With UConn’s Derek Pratt in the penalty box on a five-minute major penalty for interference, Cockerill and Stevens made UConn pay on the power play with a goal each. UConn captain Patrick Kirtland answered with a power play goal of his own late in the second period, sending the game into the third with a 2-1 scoreline.
Less than five minutes into the final frame, junior Sam Kurker fired a shot on goal from the right-wing boards that trickled through the five-hole of UConn goalie Rob Nichols. Roy would add an empty net goal to seal a 4-1 victory.
Until this weekend’s action has concluded, there is no way of knowing who the Huskies will face in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. The University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, UConn, Merrimack College and the University of Maine are the only options for Northeastern to play, and their finishes will be based on the teams’ performances this weekend.
“We feel like we have the right pieces at the right moment,” Roy said. “I think we have something special here, and we want to go far this year and make this happen.”
The Huskies will close out the regular season with two home games against the Maine Black Bears on Friday, Feb. 26 and Saturday, Feb. 27. While the Huskies can’t move upward or downward in the standings, they will look to finish the regular season strong heading into their first-round playoff series.
Gordo’s goal of the week
In honor of his five-game point streak and his laser beam snipe on Saturday, Garret Cockerill earns goal of the week honors this time.
With Northeastern on the power play in the second period, Cockerill and Dylan Sikura pulled off a give-and-go in the high slot. Cockerill dragged the puck backward as he moved toward the top of the left faceoff circle before snapping a quick shot on goal. The shot found the top-left corner behind Nichols, beating him clean on the blocker side to make it 1-0 for the home team.
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics.