The talk entering Friday’s Hockey East semifinals centered on Northeastern goalie Devon Levi and his team’s success playing in TD Garden, NU’s seniors having won a pair of Beanpots and the 2019 tournament title. UConn, on the other hand, was playing its first-ever game at the Garden, in the program’s first trip to the conference semifinals.
The latter Huskies looked right at home on Causeway Street. UConn did not display any jitters, its goalie Darion Hanson standing tall in a 4-1 win over No. 1 seeded Northeastern to send his team to Saturday night’s championship game.
“I get all the talk about Devin, he’s an amazing goalie. One of the best I’ve ever played against.” said Hanson, who stopped 24 shots for UConn (20-15-0). “I was just focused on doing my job and doing what I can to help the guys get a win.”
Levi, awarded the conference’s goalie of the year and named a Hobey Baker finalist earlier in the week, recorded 33 saves in the loss. Woburn native Matt Gatcomb’s empty-netter at 17:52 in the third put the game away.
It leaves Northeastern (25-12-1) on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. NU entered Friday 14th in the pairwise rankings used to determine the 16-team field.
“We’re hoping for the hockey gods to look after us here, and hope that the teams we need to win, at least one of them wins tomorrow night,” said coach Jerry Keefe.
UConn struck first. After Northeastern finished killing off a penalty, junior Vladislav Firstov gathered a loose puck in front of the net and sent it past Levi at 11:39 of the first.
The goal was set up by freshman Chase Bradley, who circled to the left and sent the puck toward the net, where it was re-directed by Nick Capone to the front (past Northeastern defenseman Jordan Harris) and corralled by Firstov.
“We talked about having two guys at the net at all times,” said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh. “Very rarely are you going to beat [Levi] with just one guy at the net. As you saw tonight, they were rebounds and kind of broken plays that we scored on. We didn’t really beat him clean. He’s just a fantastic goalie.”
UConn continued to apply pressure on Levi, with plenty of traffic in front of the net and kept the puck in the Northeastern end, but the momentum shifted after Carter Turnbull was whistled for a slash, putting Northeastern on the power play at 13:22.
Milton’s Aidan McDonough came through with the equalizer as the Northeastern power play unit cycled the puck, Gunnarwolfe Fontaine out to Harris at the point. He sent it over to McDonough, who one-timed it short side at 14:13.
Both teams had their chances in the second period, with Levi and Hanson both denying breakaway bids to keep the game tied. UConn finally broke through at 13:47 when Roman Kinal put a rebound of a Bradley shot off the post past Levi for the 2-1 lead.
Bradley charged down the right side and fired a slapshot that Levi blocked. His rebound came back to him, which he sent past Levi off the left post, where it caromed for Kinal to bury an the open net.
The lead would grow to 3-1 on a nifty goal from sophomore Ryan Tverberg, who forced a turnover and carried the puck from right to left across the front of the net. He got Levi to drop to his knees, swooping around the outstretched right leg of the Northeastern goalie for the score at 4:32 of the third.
“Just hopping in the zone on a puck that I could get to, and just made a move, got by, and I was able to put it in,” said Tverberg.
A win Saturday night back at the Garden against defending conference and national champion UMass — 3-1 winners over UMass Lowell later Friday — would secure a first-ever NCAA trip for UConn, which joined Division 1 in 1998-99 and Hockey East in 2014-15. Its two victories in this year’s conference tournament are its first ever.
“We’ve openly talked about all our goals this year and we don’t hide from them, so I wasn’t shocked at all tonight that we showed up and we weren’t star-struck in this building,” said Cavanaugh. “We talked about it We’re trying to meet these challenges head on.
“We kind of have the 24-hour rule. I told them tonight it was the 24-minute rule. This is great, but we’ve got to move on. We got one more [Saturday].”
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.