Northeastern's improbable run to the NCAA Hockey Tournament is one for the ages. The Huskies started off 1-11-2 before catching fire.
It's been repeated over and over. A trip to Northern Ireland sparked a turnaround that saw Northeastern go on a 20-1-2 run to finish out the season. It culminated in the school's first Hockey East Tournament Championship since 1988. The Huskies swept Maine in the first round, went on the road and upset Notre Dame in two games in the quarterfinals, disposed of Boston College in the semifinals before edging UMass Lowell in the finals.
It's a great story. There's no doubt about it. Who's to say the remarkable run cannot continue deep into the NCAA Tournament. However, standing in the way is the behemoth of college hockey. A 2 p.m. ET date Friday afternoon against the University of North Dakota awaits.
The Fighting Hawks and their 11 NHL Draft picks and seven national championships lurk in the weeds inside the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio. First year head coach Brad Berry has a plethora of riches, including one of the top first lines in the country.
Sophomore and Chicago Black Hawks first round pick Nick Schmaltz centers the line with senior and free agent prospect Drake Caggiula on the left side and leading scorer Brock Boeser, a Vancouver Canucks first rounder, on the right wing. The line has combined for 54 goals and 83 goals on the season. Outside of Michigan's Hobey trio, there's little doubt there's a better line in the entire country.
North Dakota's mobile defense is solid in its own end and can push the pace in transition. Junior Troy Stecher might be the best free agent prospect in college hockey. He's just south of six-feet, but he can skate as well as any defenseman in the country. He always has his head up and can move laterally.
The rest of the 'd' corps is no slouch. All five -- sophomore Tucker Poolman, juniors Paul LaDue, Keaton Thompson and Gage Ausmus, freshman Christian Wolanin, are NHL Draft picks.
Sophomore goaltender Cam Johnson has come from nowhere to be a serviceable number one goaltender. His .935 save percentage has shocked everyone. Once he developed confidence, he's taken flight.
The plethora of riches in green and black is enough to scare most teams, but it won't intimidate Madigan's Huskies. Whether they win or not is another story, but Northeastern will play confidently and loose.
Once Kevin Roy, a Hobey Baker hopeful before his season was derailed due to injury, returned to the lineup, the Huskies have had three formidable lines. The best story of the season is the development of the top line.
Centered by John Stevens, with brother Nolan Stevens on the left wing and Zach Aston-Reese on the right wing, it's a line that plays with a purpose and is heavy on pucks, as Madigan likes to say.
Stevens leads the team with 19 goals and has a good shot, but it's not a line with a ton of skill. They play the game the right way, win battles and score a lot in the dirty areas. They'll be in the right position at the right time. Nolan Stevens, a sophomore, is one of the better free agent prospects in the country among underclassmen.
Aston-Reese doesn't have quite the ceiling of Nolan Stevens, but he's another intriguing free agent prospect. He's a good two-way player who does a lot of little things like getting sticks in lanes in the defensive zone, winning battles to loose pucks and mucking it up along the wall.
John Stevens, a junior, has good vision and does a his job below the circles in both ends. He's responsible and can use his strength to dish the puck off to his open line mates.
The second line is centered by the team's best pro prospect, freshman Adam Gaudette, a Vancouver Canucks selection. The Thayer Academy and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders prospect is a complete, two-way player. He's very good at all 200 feet of the ice. He'll make it at the next level by winning face-offs, killing penalties and using his superior skating to be an effective bottom six guy, but his scoring has come on during the second half. The Braintree, Mass. native had just three goals and two assists before the calendar turned to 2016. Since January, he's put up nine goals and 16 assists in 22 games.
With the top two lines playing so well, Madigan and his staff didn't want to break them up when Roy returned. He plays on the third line and the second power play unit. The Anaheim Ducks prospect didn't score his first goal on the season until Feb. 12 against UMass, his 17th game of the season. Now, he has 10 goals over his last 12 games.
The forwards do such a good job of controlling the possession and the breakout has gotten a lot better since that dreadful start, but defensive lapses and soft goals are the biggest concerns for the Huskies. Ryan Ruck's numbers have improved greatly since his winless start to his collegiate career. However, the freshman is still prone to giving up the occasional soft goals. Look no further than the Hockey East Championship game to see evidence of this. Both goals UMass Lowell scored were from near-impossible angles.
North Dakota vs. Northeastern - By the Numbers
|Seed||No. 1||No. 4|
|Last 10 Games||8-1-1||10-0-0
|Head Coach||Brad Berry (North Dakota)
||Jim Madigan (Northeastern '84)|
|Record at School||30-6-4 (1st)
|Goals Per Game||3.55 (8th)||3.30 (12th)
|Goals Against||1.85 (3rd)||2.48 (20th)|
|Power Play Pct.||18.8 (22nd)||23.5 (7th)|
|Penalty Kill Pct.||79.8 (45th)||79.4 (T-46th)
|Penalty Minutes||11.68 (19th)||9.05 (45th)|
|Leading Scorer (Pts.)||Brock Boeser (51)
||Zach Aston-Reese (43)
|Goals Leader||Brock Boeser (25)
||Nolan Stevens (19)
|Assists Leader||Nick Schmaltz (32)
||Zach Aston-Reese (29)|
|+/- Leader||Drake Caggiula (+39)
||Zach Aston-Reese (+18)|
||Drake Caggiula (7)
||Nolan Stevens (5)|
||Brock Boeser (5)
||Nolan Stevens (8)|
|Starting Goaltender||Cam Johnson (.935)
||Ryan Ruck (.912)
|NHL Draft Picks
||'59, '63, '80, '82, '87, '97, '00