Northeastern men’s ice hockey (25-13-1) fell 2-1 in an overtime loss to No. 1 seed Western Michigan (26-12-1) March 25 in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship.
While the loss closed the door on a potential NCAA trophy, the Huskies made history this season, clinching the program’s first regular season Hockey East title and stockpiling several individual awards. For head coach Jerry Keefe, the team’s determination and passion shown in each game was the season’s crowning achievement.
“It was a step forward. These guys won 25 games and they won a Hockey East regular season championship, and they’ll always be champions because they won that trophy, ”Keefe said. “A new season to look at, there’s going to be some ups and downs but overall, the culture and the kind of kids we have, we saw it today with the push back we had. I knew how badly they wanted to win and we’re a better program moving forward because of this season. ”
Western Michigan’s road to the NCAA championship tournament was clear: the team was well within the bubble and were ranked in the top five nationally as the regular season ended. For Northeastern, after a loss to University of Connecticut (20-16) in the Hockey East semifinals, their bid to the championship tournament was out of their control.
After an absurd night of overtime games March 19, Northeastern players celebrated as they secured the last at-large bid to the national tournament. Celebration turned into preparation, as Northeastern would have to face one of the best offensive and most physically demanding teams in the nation.
The Broncos were likely the most favorable matchup for Northeastern to draw, with little tournament experience. However, the Huskies still entered the game as underdogs.
With WMU possessing the leading scorer in the nation, senior forward Ethen Frank; one of the best passers in the nation, senior forward Drew Worrad; and averaging the fourth most goals per game of any team, Northeastern faced an offensive juggernaut and an uphill battle.
From the first period the battle looked like a losing one. The Huskies’ defense struggled mightily in the first frame, over-committing to the puck and getting beat down the ice. Throughout the first 10 minutes, Northeastern was bailed out by whiffed shots and broken sticks. Luckily, when the Broncos did beat the Huskies’ defense, sophomore goaltender Devon Levi was there to keep WMU out of the net.
However, while Levi was able to keep the Broncos out initially, a sloppy Northeastern pass near center ice led to a two-on-one fast break snipe from senior forward Cole Gallant 14 minutes into the first period.
Following the goal, a cross checking penalty on freshman forward Ryan St. Louis seemed to make matters worse for the Huskies, but Northeastern’s top notch penalty kill kept the puck out of the zone, killing the advantage.
The period ended with Northeastern only taking five shots on goal, all behind the faceoff circles, and the Huskies down one.
The second period was a different story. Northeastern’s defense swarmed the puck, keeping the Broncos from any good looks at the net. Timely defense from senior defenseman and captain Jordan Harris and junior defenseman Jayden Struble led the way for the Huskies.
The defensive start to the period resulted in several quick rushes, and one lone man rush by sophomore right wing Gunnarwolfe Fontaine led to a Bronco hooking penalty five minutes into the second period. While the Huskies played poorly throughout the advantage, Fontaine’s aggressiveness set Northeastern’s tone for the rest of the game.
The Broncos killed the penalty, but Northeastern’s offense had found new life. Graduate student defenseman Tommy Miller and freshman forward Jack Hughes nearly got the puck past Bronco junior goalie Brandon Bussi, but Bussi warded off the rolling Northeastern offense.
Although the Huskies were unable to score, the team’s grit on defense and poise on offense shifted the momentum to Northeastern’s side.
With presumably the final 20 minutes of the season starting to tick down, Northeastern began the third period flooring the gas. The Huskies hurled shot after shot at Bussi in the first two minutes, but none slipped through.
After a lengthy Northeastern possession, Western Michigan got their chance in the zone, whipping shots at the goal. Levi saved everything. Both goaltenders were nearly impenetrable. Intensity filled the air at Worcester’s DCU Center, as Huskies threw Broncos into the boards and open ice checks left fallen skaters scattered across the rink.
Bussi, with his 6’5 ”frame, remained strong between the pipes, keeping a desperate, though improved, Northeastern offense from scoring. With six minutes left in the game, Levi made a diving save to keep the Huskies within one.
A minute after Levi’s save, Northeastern freshman forward Justin Hryckowian poked the puck free near the blue line. Sophomore forward Sam Colangelo corralled the puck and sent it to junior forward Aidan McDonough. The team’s leading scorer deked a Bronco out of his skates, skated in front of the net, and forced the puck in.
In the final four minutes, neither team scored, although both had opportunities. Levi and Bussi kept the game tied, sending it into overtime.
Having won several overtime games during the regular season and with momentum in its favor, Northeastern was in an excellent position to complete the upset. The Huskies began the extra period of hockey with the same urgency seen in the final two periods, winning the faceoff and taking a few shots at Bussi.
After a Northeastern possession, the Broncos dumped the puck into NU’s zone, prompting Levi to leave the net to recover it. As he skated behind the net, two Broncos crept up on both sides of him, trapping him behind it. Levi tried to pass the puck out, but it was stolen by Bronco sophomore forward Luke Grainger.
Grainger skated behind the net for a better angle, as Levi scrambled to get in front. Grainger took the shot and Levi dove in front of the net blocking the puck with his glove. Grainger recovered and shot it again into Levi’s back.
The teams made their way back to the benches, and the referees went to review the play. As the players and crowd waited for a call, the DCU Center jumbotron showed the overhead angle.
The Bronco bench jubilated as the screens showed the puck barely crossing the red line, and the referees confirmed the goal.
The Huskies looked on in disbelief. Senior defender Julian Kislin and Harris hugged each other as their time in Northeastern Hockey came to an end. Several players commended Northeastern’s mobile DogHouse, waving their sticks to the dedicated Northeastern fans.
Through the most tragic of ironies, it was only fitting that Levi’s mistake closed the Huskies ’season. The hero that made the Northeastern men’s hockey team’s season, ended it.
“We’re not in this game without [Levi]. He’s an unbelievable goaltender and an unbelievable person, and that’s a bounce, that’s hockey, that’s the way it’s gone. There have been hundreds of goals that could’ve gone in this year that he stopped, ”McDonough said. “I just feel bad for him because I know how much he cares about the boys. He’s the most selfless kid that I’ve ever met. I know he’s probably beating himself up about it, but it’s on all of us and it’s just a bounce and there’s no need for him to hang his head. ”
The blunder does not discredit any of Levi’s achievements, though. Levi is tied for the second best save percentage in NCAA history, while playing more games and facing 320 more shots than either of the goaltenders above him.
While they are one of the youngest teams in the country, Northeastern’s seniors, Harris, Kislin, Miller and forwards Marc Bozzo and Jakov Novak, were the glue that kept the Huskies together through a rollercoaster of a year.
“It’s actually amazing to see the work [Harris] puts in, and I think all of our seniors, in that matter, do a lot of little things and put the extra time in, ”Keefe said. “We have a lot of younger guys that look up to them, and they would pull them aside and talk to them about what it took to be a player and what it took to win at this level and the preparation that goes into it.”
Though his time at Northeastern is over, Harris signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Montreal Canadiens March 26.
As for the rest of the Huskies, they played with their hearts on their sleeves and played some of their best hockey when the moment called for it.
“You’re proud of your guys, they stuck with it and gave themselves a chance to win in overtime,” Keefe said. “You’re not happy because you didn’t find a way to win the hockey game, but when you go into the locker room after the game, and you look at your players and they leave it on the line.”