BOSTON -- Numbers, in terms of shots on goal, do not always tell the story of a hockey game.
Saturday night at Matthews Arena, Northeastern was not its best to start. But, the puck jumped in the net for the host Huskies, and it was game, set, match.
“For two periods, I thought we played really well, regardless of the score,” Connecticut head coach Mike Cavanaugh said, whose team had 13 shots on goal but was held scoreless in the first period of a 4-1 loss.
“When Northeastern did get a chance, they buried their chances, and that was probably the story of the game.”
The story, it was.
Northeastern scored its three first-period goals in less than eight minutes. Senior Zach Aston-Reese ― the first Husky skater to achieve a 25-goal, 25-assist season since 1985-86 ― contributed two of them and finished his third hat trick of the season 16:28 into the second period.
Aston-Reese factored into all four NU goals as he was credited with a secondary assist on its third goal of the opening period, by sophomore Adam Gaudette. Thus, it was his second four-point game in the last four.
“It’s comforting to have him on the ice,” NU head coach Jim Madigan said of Aston-Reese, who now has 56 points in 32 games this season. “He’s very good defensively, a plus-13 player on top of it. He contributes in many ways, so it’s comforting just like when we have Nolan and John Stevens, (Dylan) Sikura and (Adam) Gaudette. They’re making this happen.”
The host Huskies are winners of four straight games and eight of their last ten, and enter a season-ending, two-game series at Maine in sole possession of eighth place in the Hockey East standings, but just three points behind sixth-place Vermont.
“This is the best time to get hot, going into playoffs,” Aston-Reese said. “We’re looking forward to next weekend. Maine is a hard team to play against, especially up there, so I think that’s a great test for us and it’s going to be good for us going forward.”
UConn more than doubled Northeastern’s total offensive output in the first period, but the hosts put 11 of their 13 total attempts on Rob Nichols and lit the lamp three times.
Aston-Reese got his the Huskies’ first two goals on the board in quick succession. First, Ryan Rosenthal picked a puck off the end wall and dished it forward to the assistant captain who was camped out alone in the low slot at 4:16.
Junior Nolan Stevens posted his first of two primary assists in the period on Aston-Reese’s second goal of the frame at the 7:12 marker. After defenseman Eric Williams carried a loose puck through center, Stevens slid the puck through a defenseman after driving down the right side, and Aston-Reese redirected it home.
Exactly five minutes later, junior Adam Gaudette scored his 23rd goal of the season, banging home Stevens’ cross-crease pass from the left side of the doorstep. Aston-Reese took the initial shot that created the rebound Gaudette buried for his 14th marker on the power play, tying a school record.
“Even though we were leading 3-0, we really weren’t playing as sharp,” Madigan said. “We were a little bit sloppy, but I thought we got better as the second and third period went along. We got some key production from our top guys, including Zach who got us going early.”
The visitors made the game interesting just 1:47 into the second as sophomore Max Letunov banged in a puck loose in NU goaltender Ryan Ruck’s crease. Classmate Karl El-Mir started the play with an odd-man rush up ice, but the Sharks prospect got his seventh goal of the year.
“That’s how you have to play,” Cavanaugh said. “We did a good job of forechecking and forced a turnover. Heading into the playoffs, that’s how you have to score goals.”
Northeastern had a 9-6 shot advantage in each of the final two frames, and Aston-Reese netted the game’s final goal 16:28 into the second after sophomore Eric Williams found him for a wrister from the left wing wall.
“Ryan Ruck stood tall when we needed some key saves in the first and second periods,” Madigan said. “In the third period, I thought we did a good job staying above the puck and shutting them down to secure the win.”
The coveted NHL free agent from Staten Island, N.Y., is the first Division 1 player since Robert Morris’ Cody Wydo in 2013-14 to score three hat tricks in a season.