There was a time in the not too distant past that a 7-4-3 start would be cause for celebration for the Northeastern men’s hockey team. But expectations were high for the Huskies entering this season, and the team has not quite been able to match them.
“We’ve been struggling a little bit, trying to find ourselves,” coach Jerry Keefe said. “We’ve been good at times, but we’ve been inconsistent. I don’t think anyone from the players to the coaching staff is really happy about how we were playing.”
One reason for the high hopes for this year’s squad was the talent returning from a team that captured the 2021-22 regular-season Hockey East crown and reached the NCAA tournament. There was concern that either leading scorer Aidan McDonough or goalie Devon Levi might turn pro last spring, but both came back for another season on Huntington Avenue.
“Getting my education and graduating was really important to me and my family,” said McDonough, whose stock has risen since he was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Draft.
The Milton native who starred at Thayer Academy added that he believed another year in Hockey East would help him become a better all-around player.
“Skating, getting stronger, getting better below the dots, being more of a 200-foot player, some things that I think at the next level are going to be even more important for me, aside from just scoring goals,” said McDonough, who has eight goals and 10 assists in 13 games.
One of the people McDonough consulted with was former teammate Jordan Harris, who faced the same dilemma in the spring of 2021 and chose to return for one more year, then served as captain and along with McDonough was named a first team All-American. The Haverhill native signed with the Montreal Canadiens at the conclusion of his senior season.
“He was just really grateful for his experience to come back,” said McDonough, the NU captain this season. “He just talked about how much he matured, and how much it was just more than hockey, and he felt physically and mentally ready.”
A split with Boston University last weekend had the Huskies feeling like they might be back on track. After a 2-0 win at Agganis Arena, Northeastern fell, 4-3, in overtime of a very entertaining game at Matthews Arena.
“Two good teams going toe-to-toe,” said Keefe. “I think we showed when we play a certain way and the right way, we’re going to have a chance to beat anybody. There’s still some areas we need to get better for sure. We have to get healthy, but I thought our guys took a good step this weekend.”
Levi, a junior, made 41 saves in Friday’s shutout, while freshman Cam Lund tallied the game-winner. It’s been an impressive season for Lund, a Bridgewater native who has five goals and seven assists in 14 games.
“I really like the way he’s playing right now,” said Keefe. “He’s not overthinking out there. Things are coming more naturally to him. He knows how we want to play, what we’re expecting him to do out there and how we want him to play. As an offensively gifted kid, we want to give him that freedom. His 200-foot game is much better now, and he’s got confidence.”
Collectively, the Huskies hope to carry such confidence into Friday’s game with Western Michigan in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena in the Music City Hockey Classic. The game is the second half of a NHL-NCAA doubleheader, with the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche taking on the Predators in a matinee.
Update, Friday 1:29 p.m.: The game between the Predators and the Avalanche has been postponed because of a water main break that has soaked the downtown arena. NU’s game with Western Michigan was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.
Due to the flooding incurred at Bridgestone Arena today, the Music City college hockey classic game between Northeastern and Western Michigan scheduled for this evening is being moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) November 25, 2022
The game will be a rematch of last year’s first-round matchup in the NCAA tournament, won by the Broncos, 2-1, in overtime. Between the two teams, five players are ranked among the top 10 leading scorers in the nation, with McDonough leading the way for the Huskies with his 18 points and joined by sophomore teammate Justin Hryckowian (9-8—17).
“I think our guys are just really excited to play a good opponent in a really nice building,” said Keefe. “It will be a good challenge for us.”
UConn to play Cornell at MSG
Connecticut (10-2-3) is also taking on a nonconference foe in an NHL arena this weekend. The sixth-ranked Huskies will face Cornell at Madison Square Garden Saturday at 8 p.m. in The Frozen Apple.
“We’re really excited,” said coach Mike Cavanaugh. “For us to be able to go down there and play a team of Cornell’s caliber is one of the special memories I think these kids will have.”
Unbeaten Harvard hits the road
At 7-0-0, Harvard is the last remaining undefeated team in Division 1, but the ninth-ranked Crimson will face a stern test this weekend when they travel for a pair of games at fifth-ranked Michigan … No. 11 BU improved to 8-4 with a win over visiting Notre Dame Wednesday night. The Fighting Irish will be at Boston College on Friday … UMass and UMass Lowell will square off Friday in Belfast for The Friendship Four tournament, along with Quinnipiac and Dartmouth. The two winners will play Saturday for the Belpot trophy.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.