By: Joe Barbito
Unlike years past, the Northeastern men’s hockey team had a very strong start to the year. They swept BU in a home-and-home series, won two of three against Lowell, and have looked good-if-not-great in multiple facets of the game.
Much like past years, the Huskies must have a strong second half if they want a serious shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Heading into their matchup with American International College on Saturday, Northeastern sits at No. 13 in the PairWise rankings, smack dab between No. 12 Providence and No.14 Boston College. The three schools currently represent Hockey East in the upper tier of the PWR, with the next highest school from the conference UMass (yes, the Minutemen) clinging to No. 22. This is a big difference from years past when the conference has been well-represented, including the 2016 tournament that featured six Hockey East teams.
With a weaker conference and a status as an at-large bubble team, Northeastern is faced with the task of beating a lot of middling opponents the rest of the season.
The toughest opponents left for the Huskies are Providence, whom Northeastern faces twice in January, and Boston College in the first round of the Beanpot. The biggest storyline for the rest of the season will be the relative position of the Huskies, Friars and Eagles. Providence is three years removed from a national title and has joined Boston College as one of the top teams in Hockey East year after year.
So neither the Eagles nor Friars are on my list of “middling teams” left for Northeastern.
The easiest matchup on the schedule is the two-game home series with Maine. This is a team that Northeastern has consistently beaten over the past few years, and two years ago they won four consecutive games over the Black Bears at Matthews Arena.
After that, Vermont is the next toughest. The Catamounts are #54 in PWR but consider this: when Northeastern beat UVM at home in November, it was their first win over the Catamounts since January 2015. During that stretch the Huskies went 0-3-2.
For whatever reason, UVM has some edge on the Huskies. That cannot stop NU from sweeping this series.
Bentley and AIC are part of the Atlantic Hockey Conference, which has given Hockey East teams fits this season. Bentley has won its last six, including an overtime win over Lowell. The Falcons have been impressive, but are still a bottom-of-the-pack team in the Atlantic.
AIC boasts one of the most impressive rookies in the country, Brennan Kapcheck, and pulled off a 3-2 overtime win against Penn State in October. Jeremy Davies and Dylan Sikura will be gone for the AIC game, so this could pose a serious issue for Northeastern.
This leaves UMass, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and the Beanpot second round game to decide the fate of Northeastern. The Minutemen have been better than expected, and New Hampshire looked like the real deal for a little, but this is an overall mediocre group. The second round of the Beanpot will either be a championship or consolation game against Boston University or Harvard.
You tell me which of these teams strikes fear into your heart after how Northeastern has played this year.
This is a crew that Northeastern is suited to defeat. You can believe the Minutemen hype, but any team blown out by UConn 8-2 is probably masking some big issues. UNH has three wins since the beginning of November. UConn has zero 10-goal or 20-point scorers. NU has already handled BU, and Harvard has been one of the biggest disappointments in the country.
The trap games against the bad teams are going to be the hardest for the Huskies. They can barely afford losses to their fellow bubble brethren. Frankly, their best bet is just to win the conference tournament come March.
But this is a rare opportunity for the Huskies to put together a complete season, something that has not been seen on Huntington Avenue in years.
Their last hot start was in 2013, when they rattled off five non-conference wins to open the year before limping into the playoffs and getting smacked by UNH.
In 2009 they had something resembling a normal season, but were only able to emerge 16-16-2 (11-14-2).
We must go back to 2008 when the Huskies went 25-12-4 (18-6-3) for the most recent consistent season in Husky memory.
For the first time in a decade, Northeastern can be a relevant national hockey team. They can compete for an NCAA bid and push for a Frozen Four berth. But none of these things can happen if they roll over this spring. For the Huskies, every game is a must win.