By Gordon Weigers, news staff
The Northeastern men’s hockey team (20-13-5) advanced to the Hockey East Semifinals after back-to-back sweeps over the University of Maine Black Bears and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The Huskies earned a 3-2 overtime victory over Maine on Friday, March 4 before taking the series-deciding game two by a score of 4-3 in overtime the next day. Junior defenseman Matt Benning was the OT hero on Friday, while senior forward Kevin Roy notched the series clincher on his final shot at Matthews Arena at 13:45 in the extra frame on Saturday.
Edging out Maine in the first round punched Northeastern’s ticket to the Hockey East Quarterfinals where they met their next foe, the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. After battling to a 3-1 win in game one against Notre Dame, NU’s offense exploded in a 6-4 rout the following night to send the Huskies to TD Garden next weekend.
On Monday, the United States College Hockey Organization (USCHO) released its weekly poll of the top-20 teams in the country, a list the Huskies have been fighting to earn their spot on since they turned their season around in December. Northeastern now holds the No. 14 spot in the country after going unranked all season.
Roy received player of the week honors from Hockey East for the second straight week after his four-point outing against Notre Dame on Saturday. Roy has scored five goals and dished out three helpers for eight points in four playoff games. The senior captain now has 10 goals and 14 assists this season, despite missing a bulk of the year due to injury.
In game one of the series with Notre Dame on Friday night, the Huskies looked to grind down the Fighting Irish to take away their speed and offensive creativity. They did just that as they wore at Notre Dame en route to a 3-1 win.
Freshman forward Lincoln Griffin opened the scoring in the first period, burying a shot top-shelf from the side of Notre Dame sophomore goalie Cal Petersen. Less than four minutes later, junior forward John Stevens chased down a loose puck and scored on a wrap-around to give the Huskies a 2-0 advantage.
After Fighting Irish sophomore defenseman Jordan Gross launched home a late first-period goal, Northeastern controlled the pace of play right to the end, picking up an empty-net goal from junior forward Tanner Pond to polish off the 3-1 win.
Head coach Jim Madigan commended Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson and the way he managed his team following game one.
“They’re heavy on pucks,” Madigan said. “They’re disciplined, they push you and they brought the best out of us.”
With the offense clicking up front, NU’s defense was all over Notre Dame’s forwards, eliminating their notoriously fast-paced attack and keeping them to the perimeter in the offensive zone.
After a 1-1 tie into the first intermission, NU blitzed the Fighting Irish, burying three straight goals. Roy and sophomores Garret Cockerill and Dylan Sikura all cashed in to make it a 4-1 advantage.
Holding a three-goal lead, NU conceded a goal with five seconds left in the second period when a puck caromed into the net off of a Husky forward. Normally, a late period goal would energize a team the rest of the way, but the Huskies battled hard to keep Notre Dame from gathering any momentum.
“I thought our guys in between periods were really composed,” Madigan said.
Less than two minutes into the third, Roy struck again to make it a 5-2 hockey game. Junior forward Pond netted his second goal of the series to increase NU’s lead to 6-2. Notre Dame would add two late goals to make things interesting, but it was not enough to surmount the lead.
All season long, Madigan has preached to his players to be “hard on pucks,” a strategy that has his Huskies hounding opposing defenses to come up with possessions via a strong forecheck. The hard-on-pucks system wore down Notre Dame, a traditionally fluid, fast-skating team. NU’s physical presence came from up and down the lineup and proved to be too much for the Fighting Irish to handle.
The line of John and Nolan Stevens and Aston-Reese has been the embodiment of the hard-on-pucks mindset as of late, pressuring opponents and combining for 13 points in the playoffs so far.
The Huskies now set their sights on the Hockey East Championship at TD Garden this weekend. They will face No. 3 Boston College on Friday at 8 p.m. and, with a victory, will face the winner of Providence vs. University of Massachusetts-Lowell on Saturday.
NU took one point from Boston College this season, earning a 3-3 tie at Conte Forum on Dec. 5. A day later, Northeastern couldn’t hang on to a 3-1 lead and fell 4-3 to the Eagles at Matthews Arena.
Gordo’s Goal of the Week
Goal of the week honors are bestowed upon junior defenseman Matt Benning for his game-winning goal in game one against Maine. Just under five minutes into overtime, Aston-Reese found the puck at Maine’s blueline, looking to penetrate their defense. In the high slot, he spun around to find Benning roaring in from the neutral zone to join the attack. Aston-Reese dropped a soft pass to Benning who stepped into the shot with all of his power. Benning’s blast caught the left post and ricocheted in behind McGovern, sending Matthews Arena into a frenzy. In the Huskies’ first round playoff series against Merrimack last season, Benning hit the post in overtime of game one before Merrimack stole the win. This one was extra sweet for Benning.
“It’s amazing what happens,” Benning said. “I mean, it feels good.”
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics