February 10, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Huskies conference's Jekyll and Hyde

By Andrew Merritt

Northeastern saw what it was capable of doing Friday night.

On Monday night, the Huskies also saw what they were capable of, in a very different way. 

Garrett Vermeersch and the Huskies celebrate their lone goal in Monday's 7-1 loss to Boston College. (Dave Arnold Photography)

On Friday night, NU staked itself to a two-goal lead early in its game against UMass – a crucial battle for playoff positioning with the head-to-head tiebreaker at stake. A UMass win would give the Minutemen a 2-0-1 edge against the Huskies, with the two teams apparently destined to battle for the eighth and final playoff spot, and in a league where the sixth- through ninth-place teams are separated by just three points (not to mention the first- through fifth-place teams being separated by thmae same margin), it’s that tiebreaker situation that will decide who gets to play the second weekend in March, and who has to travel to do so.

Yet the goals by Robbie Vrolyk and Adam Reid only set the Minutemen back on their heels briefly, and the visitors to Matthews Arena came roaring back, scoring two goals in the final seven minutes of the first and adding another 2:12 into the second, taking a 3-2 lead.

The Huskies weren’t done, and that seems to be the larger message from Huntington Avenue, too. Vrolyk picked up another goal a few minutes after Michael Pereira’s (West Haven, Conn.) second had given UMass the one-goal lead, and the teams stayed tied at three into overtime.

Vinny Saponari only needed 22 seconds to end it. He poked a dribbler past UMass’ Kevin Boyle, giving NU a hard-fought and undeniably vital 4-3 win over the Minutemen.

It was a gutty win for a team that needed one. The Huskies got off to an awful start this season, going 1-7-2 over their first 10 games, and while an eight-game unbeaten streak gave their season some life, the hole they dug themselves over the first month-and-a-half is still not yet filled in, and the margin for error down the stretch is nearly non-existent.

Against a team that’s also struggling, the Huskies showed they could fall behind and come back. But 72 hours later, against one of the league’s elite, NU saw what happens when it doesn’t have its A-game. The Huskies were outclassed in Monday’s Beanpot semifinal against Boston College, falling 7-1 and watching their hopes of ending a 23-year title drought go by the wayside.

“We got schooled today, bad,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said. “They were the better team, and congratulations to them.”

The Eagles doubled up the Huskies in shots, 46-23, and scored a pair of shorthanded goals, both times taking advantage of bad misplays at the blue line by the Husky power play.

“We were sloppy in our own zone, we were sloppy in front, we were sloppy on the power play,” Madigan said. “They just wanted it more. When they wanted pucks, they just lifted our sticks, and it was like boys against men tonight.”

On Friday, Northeastern taught UMass a lesson – that it wouldn’t go quietly. Yet it seems the Huskies forgot that lesson just three nights later. That Beanpot semifinal only had pride on the line, but the games NU has left against teams like Maine and BU to finish out the season carry a lot more weight.

Games of the Week

Merrimack at UMass-Lowell, Friday

It’s quietly one of the league’s fiercest rivalries, and in this edition there’s a whole lot for both teams to play for, as UMass-Lowell hunts for first place and Merrimack hunts to stay in the top four.

Hockey East power rankings

1.       UMass-Lowell (18-7-0, 13-6-0 Hockey East) – The River Hawks are starting to become an undeniable force under first-year coach Norm Bazin, outscoring their opponents 25-12 over their last seven games (6-1-0), and matching the longest home win streak (nine games) in program history.

2.       Boston University (17-8-1, 13-6-1) – BU bounced back strong from being swept by Maine to hold Merrimack and Harvard to one goal apiece, retaining the first-place spot in Hockey East and earning a trip to the Beanpot final.

3.       Maine (16-8-3, 11-7-2) – The Black Bears got a wake-up call from Alabama-Huntsville early Friday night, but fired back with four unanswered goals – three in the third and one in overtime – the next night and dispatched the Chargers with ease.

4.       Boston College (17-10-1, 12-7-1) – The pummeling BC handed to Northeastern Monday night was impressive for sure, but the Eagles were the only Beanpot team that didn’t play Friday, and you have to think the eight days of rest since their last game helped.

5.       Merrimack (15-6-5, 11-5-3) – A split may not have been what the Warriors were looking for out of the weekend, but they neutralized the 4-1 loss to BU Friday with a dramatic win over UMass Saturday, earned on Jeff Velleca’s game-winner with two seconds to go.

6.       Northeastern (11-12-3, 7-11-2) – If they had to win only one of their two games, the Huskies made sure they won the one that really counts, at least as far as the playoffs go. Friday’s victory over UMass gives eighth-place NU a two-point cushion over the Minutemen, and evened the season series to eliminate the first tiebreaker (head-to-head).

7.       New Hampshire (11-14-2, 8-11-1) – The Wildcats swept Providence to earn a tie with the Friars for sixth place. It’s probably too late to earn a 16th straight Hockey East quarterfinal series at the Whittemore Center, but UNH is almost definitely going to make the playoffs again, especially considering how well it’s playing now.

8.       Providence (10-14-2, 8-10-1) – The Friars continued to slide in a pair of losses to New Hampshire, and now have just one win in their last six games (two in their last 11). The dividing line between Hockey East’s haves and have-nots is clearly sitting just above their heads.

9.       UMass (9-12-5, 5-10-4) – UMass slipped out of playoff contention with a pair of tough losses to Northeastern and Merrimack, and giving away games late is becoming their calling card after giving up the game-winner in overtime Friday and with two seconds left in regulation Saturday.

10.   Vermont (5-21-1, 2-17-1) – The Catamounts aren’t mathematically eliminated yet, but a loss to BC Friday coupled with at least one Northeastern victory will finish the job.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com