The magic-and-wonder tour continued Saturday night for the Northeastern Huskies. The team with the tiniest of chances in November, the team that once again was the punch line and pratfall of college hockey in our town, swashbuckled its way to a Hockey East championship with a 3-2 win over UMass Lowell at the Garden.
Once mired in the humiliating doldrums of a 1-11-2 start, the Huntington Hounds are now headed to this week’s NCAA playoffs, courtesy of a freshly-minted Hockey East championship and a red-hot, all-but-sold-their-souls-to-the-devil 20-1-2 streak that began in mid-December.
They are the hottest team in college hockey. They are the hottest thing in the whole damned sports Hub of the Universe.
Crack an egg on one of the Huskies’ heads and it will turn instantly into a perfectly cooked quiche. If we still had snowbanks, they could be deployed strategically around town to melt away every last flake (where were these guys last March?) by merely blinking their eyes and waving their sticks.
After a 27-year lag between championships, the Hounds are back, with pluck and panache and no small sense of vindication.
“You’re subjected as a coach to people’s thoughts and opinions,’’ said NU coach Jim Madigan, musing over what it was like to be the 1-11-2 coach of a 1-11-2 team in a city that eats up chumps with the same appetite that it feasts on winners. “I actually like reading what some of them write about me because I kind of look at it like idiot radio . . . the sports network stations, you know, Tony from Southie calling in, or Billy from Southie and Tony from Eastie. I get a kick out of listening to their comments.
“It stings when it is some of your own people, who don’t know if the puck is blown or stuffed or what it is made of, but they feel they want to comment on it and that is their prerogative. I just don’t like it when our players have to listen to it. Shots at me . . . hey, I am fair game. But our players had to put up with it. I had to tell our guys, ‘Hey, don’t listen to what you’re hearing and reading and just focus on what we can do.’ And that’s a hard thing to do, because our kids now live in social media. Thank God I am a dinosaur. I don’t live in it much.’’
After dealing Boston College out of the tournament on Friday night with a 5-4 win, the Huskies again used an effective power play (2 for 3) to dispatch the tired-but-formidable River Hawks (who needed triple OT to dump Providence Friday night).
Fittingly, it was a power-play goal that won it for the Huskies, Zach Aston-Reese backhanding home the 2-2 tiebreaker with 11:03 gone in the third. John Stevens triggered the play with a high-slot slapper, his stick breaking in half when he put down the hammer, the puck squibbing its way to Aston-Reese in the mid-slot.
In that moment, it was the Huskies’ season in microcosm. No one picks a 1-11-2 path to the NCAA. No one draws up a winning goal that starts with a shattered stick, a busted play, the puck then rolling into the velvety hands of Aston-Reese, the team’s leading scorer.
“I just tried to get out and be as big as I could,’’ explained Kevin Boyle, the fine Lowell goalie who was named tournament MVP. “He broke his stick and I am not sure if one of our guys hit my pad, but I kinda got off balance there and I had to lunge forward to try to poke the puck away . . . you know, kinda got in a desperation mode and he slipped it under my glove.’’
The bit of sweet serendipity turned out to be the jawbreaker. After putting up a valiant push in the middle period to tie it, 2-2, with an Adam Chapie goal, the River Hawks couldn’t repeat the surge when back in arrears. Likewise, the Huskies failed on prime chances at 16:05, 17:21, and 17:48 to add an insurance goal. They had to bleed the clock down to the final seconds and survive the final 1:52 in which Lowell coach Norm Bazin pulled Boyle for the extra attacker.
According to Madigan, his Saturday began with a text from an old pal, Ben Smith, the former NU head coach who went on to coach the USA women to their Olympic gold medal in ’98.
“It said, ‘Unprecedented,’ ’’ said Madigan, referring to Smith’s text of inspiration. “And I think this kind of captures what this group of young men have done, to be 1-11-2 and come back from the dead and go 20-1-2. So I am so pleased for them and happy for them to know that we won the university’s second championship in 32 years (the full tournament history).
“And I said to them, it is a memory they will have forever. It’s a bond they will have for a long time. It will be on display at Matthews Arena (the NU rink). And it will be displayed in other places and it will be something they treasure inside them for a long, long time.’’
They are the Huskies, the hot-as-you-could-ever-imagine Huskies, and this weekend they play in the NCAA Regionals (site and opponent to be revealed early Sunday afternoon). They have 13 straight victories and need only four more to win their first national title.
For years, Madigan recalled, he worked in the Northeastern’s development office as a gift officer, hitting up alums for money.
“For all those alums out there who’ve been saying, ‘I’m not going to give until you’ve won a Hockey East championship or a Beanpot,’ ’’ said Madigan, “I’m coming knocking on your door with the President, and we are going to raise money.’’
It’s easy to make that ask when you’ve been raised from the dead.