By Gordon Weigers, news staff
To most, the words of “All Hail Northeastern” are a mystery, and the tune itself holds little meaning. But as the pep band played while the Hockey East banner was hoisted into the rafters at TD Garden, the song took on new life.
A year of countless question marks has culminated in an exclamation point for the Northeastern University (NU) men’s hockey team. Nearly three decades removed from their last title, the Huskies have climbed the Hockey East ranks to be declared champions. The sixth-seeded Huskies shocked the first-seeded Boston College (BC) Eagles in the Hockey East Semifinals in a 5-4 thriller at TD Garden on Friday, putting them through to the finals. Eighteen hours after beating BC, Northeastern outlasted the fourth-seeded University of Massachusetts-Lowell (UML) River Hawks 3-2 to capture the Hockey East Championship, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The NCAA released the matchups for the first round of college hockey’s Big Dance – a tournament that will feature six teams from Hockey East and, for the first time ever – all four Beanpot schools.
Northeastern will face the third-overall seed University of North Dakota (UND) on Friday at 2 p.m. in Cincinnati. The winner of NU vs. UND will take on the winner of Notre Dame vs. Michigan.
Huskies head coach Jim Madigan knows a thing or two about bringing championships to Huntington Avenue. He won the Hockey East title in 1988 while playing for the Huskies and has now brought NU back to the promised land of the NCAA tournament as a coach.
“Nothing beats being it as a player,” Madigan said on how it feels to now be a two-time Hockey East champion. “It’s your blood, sweat and tears that you go through as a player. There’s a bond with 25 guys. Saying that, this is the second closest you’re going to get.”
Senior captain and forward Kevin Roy, sophomore forward Nolan Stevens and senior defenseman Colton Saucerman were all named to the Hockey East All-Tournament team after Saturday’s victory, an honor they shared with UML junior goalie Kevin Boyle, junior defenseman Dylan Zink and sophomore forward C.J. Smith.
Stevens, who was also named the Warrior Player of the Week, tallied four points in two games this weekend, scoring a goal in both wins. Roy, who put up an assist against BC, was heavy on pucks in his own zone and in the offensive zone, grinding away at BC and UML’s defenses. Saucerman didn’t show up on the scoresheet last weekend, but his great defensive play was an integral part of NU’s well-oiled machine.
At this time one year ago, Huskies fans were stewing on an early playoff exit and wondering if Roy would come back for his senior year or jump ship for the NHL. After putting off his professional aspirations, Roy fought through injuries and the adversity of being the captain of a team that had lost 12 of its first 17 games to deliver a Hockey East title to NU.
“It’s always been close, and we always seemed to come up short,” Roy said. “The players that have been here were tired of that, and that’s helped us move forward. And that’s the main reason I came back to play this year: To accomplish something.”
Roy stressed the importance of achieving success as a team rather than as an individual.
“Coming back and doing this is pretty special,” he said. “I think it’s more special than winning a personal award or the big trophies that are just personal. I think doing that with the guys, with the team, with the program like that that hasn’t won since ‘88, it speaks a lot for the team.”
With Roy and his fellow upperclassmen providing leadership on the ice, freshman goalie Ryan Ruck said he thrived off having such a central group of leaders to show younger players the ropes of college hockey. Now boasting a record of 20-10-4, Ruck has emerged as the go-to guy in the cage for NU.
“For myself, personally, with the leadership coming in, guys like Kevin [Roy] and the rest of the seniors make it pretty easy by showing us what to do when we’re down,” Ruck said. “It’s a great group of guys, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Production came from up and down NU’s lineup in both games. Led by Stevens’ four points, Northeastern found the back of the net eight times in two games against two of the best goalies in the country. Boyle and BC’s Thatcher Demko are both up for the Mike Richter award for best goalie in Hockey East; they both finished in the top five for save percentage nationally, and they both fell to Northeastern this weekend.
NU’s first line of Zach Aston-Reese and John and Nolan Stevens combined for 10 points at TD Garden, the most of any line that played in the tournament. Aston-Reese netted NU’s first goal on Friday and the last goal in the third period on Saturday that would end up being the clincher.
Much like most of his teammates, freshman forward Adam Gaudette got off to a slow start this season. After posting only five points in his first 17 games with the red and black, the highly touted rookie took off and showed the nation why the Vancouver Canucks selected him in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL entry draft. Since Dec. 19, Gaudette has put up 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 23 games and has asserted himself as a daunting offensive, physical presence on the ice. His two goals and one assist last weekend earned him Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Week from Hockey East.
Sophomore Dylan Sikura and senior Mike McMurtry play with Gaudette on the “7, 8, 9” line. The chemistry between those three players was on full display during two goals last weekend. In the final five seconds of the first period against BC, Sikura picked off a breakout pass from the Eagles and fed McMurtry in the slot. McMurtry sent a quick one-touch pass to the back door, where Gaudette wasted no time in burying the shot with .9 seconds left in the frame, giving Northeastern a 2-1 lead at intermission. In the opening two minutes on Saturday, Sikura snuck a pass to McMurtry in the middle, who once again sliced a pass through a defender to Gaudette for a tap-in goal. The trio combined for two goals and seven assists over the weekend en route to winning the conference.
Now 20-1-2 in their last 23 games, the Huskies enter the NCAA tournament as the hottest team in the country. The Huskies have won 13 consecutive games, the longest active streak of any team in the NCAA. They’ve scored at least three goals in their last 13 games and have not lost since the first round of the Beanpot to Boston University on Feb. 1. Heading into the tourney, Northeastern owns the No. 9 ranking in the country.
All Hail Northeastern.
Gordo’s Goal of the Week
With eight goals scored last weekend, the Huskies provided some great candidates for the goal of the week. There was Lincoln Griffin’s game-winning goal against BC, both of the Sikura-to-McMurtry-to-Gaudette tic-tac-toe goals, and of course, the absolute clap-bomb by Eric Williams against BC.
One goal stood above the rest last weekend, the goal that got the Huskies started for the weekend scoring parade. Aston-Reese’s goal in the first period against BC was one of the best goals by a Husky in a long time. After Nolan Stevens scooped up the puck in the defensive zone, the Huskies looked to break out with speed. Stevens cut through the neutral zone before hitting Aston-Reese with a pass at the BC blueline. Aston-Reese caught the pass in stride, and moved in one-on-one with BC defender Ian McCoshen. Using his speed, Aston-Reese pulled the puck quickly from forehand to backhand, leaving McCoshen in the dust. All alone in front of the net, Aston-Reese slipped the puck between Demko’s legs to level the score at 1-1. After seeing the puck go in, he skated into the corner and celebrated on one knee with a huge fist pump before being mobbed by his elated teammates.
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics