By Josh Brown and Ryan Fallon
The #14 Northeastern Huskies (18-12-4, 10-8-2 in Hockey East) needed just one point in the last weekend of regular season play to secure home ice advantage for the Hockey East Quarterfinals. They played a Boston University team which had one of its worst seasons in years. But they couldn’t get one. The missed opportunity for the Huskies dropped them to the #5 seed meaning that they will travel to Durham, NH this weekend to play the #4 seed University of New Hampshire Wildcats (19-16-1, 11-9-0 in Hockey East) in a best-of-three series. The Huskies got swept by the Wildcats in a home-and-home series earlier this season by scores of 3-0 and 4-1.
The Huskies have beaten all odds so far this season. A team that was predicted to finish as a cellar dweller in Hockey East, has been as high as #9 in the USCHO national rankings. The squad has also shown a resiliency that was lacking in so many Huskies teams of previous years. Whether it be period to period, game to game, or week to week, Northeastern so many times this year has bounced back and shown that it is a team that can take a couple of punches without being knocked out. They will need this resiliency more than ever to win two games at one of the most hostile environments in college hockey – the Whittemore Center on the campus of UNH.
The injury bug is a big concern for the Huskies this weekend. After forward Dalen Hedges and defensemen Josh Manson and Matt Benning got hurt in a road contest at UMass-Amherst a couple of weeks ago the Huskies have had to dip into their bench more than they have all year. We saw Hedges return against BU, but will he be 100%? Perhaps more importantly, though: will the two anchors of the Huskies blue line corps, Manson and Benning, be in the lineup and effective? The Huskies faithful sure hopes so.
A lot can be said about these Huskies, but nothing is more obvious than this: Clay Witt is having a legendary year. The Hobey Baker Award candidate has a 16-10-3 record on the year with a stingy .935 save percentage. If the Huskies are to have a chance to hush the Wildcats they will need Clay Witt to be what he’s been all year long: the best goaltender in the nation.
Dick Umile, the head coach of the Wildcats has once again done a great job of with his team. The Wildcats are a fast team that can seem even faster on the Olympic-sized ice surface at the Whittemore Center. The Huskies are going to need to establish themselves as the more physical team early and often to try to slow down the high paced run-and-gun Wildcats. The injury bug is also a concern for UNH, though. Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, the brother of NHL star and Olympian James van Riemsdyk, is battling a painful knee injury he suffered against Union a few weeks back. Reports say he will not be in the lineup this weekend. Sophomore Brett Pesce has stepped up in van Riemsdyk’s absence and done an admirable job on the blue line. He has 5 goals and 13 points overall in 10 games since van Riemsdyk went down.
Other players to watch for UNH include junior forward Matt Willows, who has enjoyed a breakout campaign to the tune of 18 goals and 17 assists. Nick Sorkin has posted the exact same numbers in a bounce-back senior season. Kevin Goumas has had another stellar season as well, finishing third in Hockey East in scoring at 45 points. Keep an eye on defenseman Eric Knodel too; the senior captain is fourth on the team in points and is a large presence on the blue line at 6’6”.
A couple of notes credited to GoNU.com, the official website of Northeastern athletics: a win against New Hampshire would be the Huskies first playoff win against the Wildcats since 1989. A win would also be the Huskies first victory at UNH since Nov. 16, 2007. A 19 win season is within reach for NU, which would be tied for the sixth most in program history. This would give the Huskies a 10-win differential from last season as well, which would be the fourth largest turnaround in Huskies history.
Games one and two of the series will be played on Friday and Saturday at 7:00 pm. Sunday’s game three (if necessary) will be a matinee, played at 4:30 pm. We’ll have all the action here for you on WRBB, with Ryan Fallon, Joe Nolan, and Josh Brown.
Behind the Numbers:
Both the Huskies and the Wildcats are talented offensive teams, ranking second and third overall this season in scoring with Northeastern averaging 3.18 goals a game and UNH not far behind at a 3.14 mark. In league play only this season, New Hampshire sits at second with a 3.20 goals per game average whereas Northeastern drops to fifth, falling to 2.50 a game. Both teams sit dead even in defensive scoring a game averaging 2.55 a game.
Something that will surely be a factor in the series is the play of special teams, something in which New Hampshire has a large advantage. The Wildcats have a remarkable penalty minutes average, at 7.8 penalty minutes a game in conference, while killing it off power plays 82.8% of the time. The Huskies sit middle of the pack taking 11.6 penalty minutes a game while killing power plays at a rate of 86.8%. When the Wildcats get on the power play, they are second in the league in scoring, with a 24% success rate. The Huskies sit near the bottom of the conference, second-to-last, converting at a dismal 9.1% rate.
The Huskies this season are 7-5-2 at home and are 9-5-1 on the road. When the Huskies have a lead after the first period they are 11-0-2 on the season, where they are only 3-6-1 when trailing after the opening frame. Scoring first will be key for Northeastern as it’s 14-3-2 when succeeding in that department.
Despite New Hampshire’s average 9-8-1 home record, the “Whitt” has given the Wildcats an advantage all year long. One upside for NU is that the games will be taking place during UNH’s spring break, which could potentially quiet down the Wildcats faithful. New Hampshire is also a team that plays well when ahead, posting a 9-1-0 record when leading after the first period and a staggering 17-1-0 record when ahead after two periods.
Game one of the series will be crucial for both teams, as in Hockey East Tournament history, the team that drops game one of the series has only come back to win 11.2% of the time.