I am both tremendously excited and extremely nervous about the upcoming playoff series versus the University of Massachusetts-Amherst beginning this Friday in Matthews Arena. It is the first time there's been playoff hockey in Matthews since the players currently on the team were in middle school, a 1998 three-game loss to UMass Lowell that continued a string of mediocre Northeastern teams during the '90s and early '00s.
Before going any further, this was bad, particularly since it led to this. But this was way worse. Going from first in the CAA and a likely NCAA tournament berth to a first round (actually second, but their first playoff game) loss to the #11 seed. For shame.
Although the Huskies lost the #1 seed to the rejects on Commonwealth Ave., they finish in second place in Hockey East, the final regular season national polls pegging them as the #4 team in the country. If nothing else, it's the second best regular season the team has ever had, going back to the inaugural 1929-1930 team which managed to lose to national powerhouses MIT and Bowdoin. They'd avenge their loss to MIT the next season with a 2-1 win in a season which also included their first game against, and first loss to, Boston University.
But I digress. For the first time in my collegiate career, I've had to pay for tickets to see Northeastern at home, at the bargain price of $10 for the best-of-three series. The games will likely be sold out, with Saturday's game televised on NESN for the lazy and/or out-of-towners. I don't see a particularly large contingent of UMass fans making the eastward drive, but that's ok, since they're second behind BC fans for the crown of Worst Fans in College Hockey.
Playoffs always seem to come down to special teams. And, in Notheastern's case, those teams certainly have been "special." The power play, derided by Husky fans for much of the season, once again reared its ugly head in the season finale at BC. 1 for 11, with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3, with an average of just over one shot per power play. Meanwhile, the penalty kill allowed the Eagles to go 3 for 6, including goals on consecutive power plays.
That's bad. Really bad.
Encouraging, though, is that Northeastern has managed to avoid losing two games in a row all season, and I don't see anything changing now. Brad Hobey Baker Thiessen has the ability to keep the team in games where it comes out flat. Defensive adjustments tend to fix problems on the penalty kill from game to game...rarely does the team follow a bad defensive effort with a second bad defensive effort.
Also, UMass took the season series from the Huskies, 2-1. I'm hoping (praying?) that the coaching staff has learned from earlier failure and has made the necessary adjustments to lines, personnel, and mental approach to ensure a higher level of competition from the boys in red and black. Home ice should play a big role, with the atmosphere likely to replicate the BC and BU games from earlier in the season.
Players to watch from UMass are goalies Dan Meyers and Paul Dainton, both of whom will likely start one of the first two games barring excellent performance from the other. James Marcou has been a thorn in the Huskies' paw, with 7(!) points versus Northeastern in three games this year. Alex Berry has also looked good for the Minutemen, although he hasn't done tremendous harm to Northeastern.
Northeastern will look to its seniors for leadership. Joe Vitale, Ryan Ginand, and Dennis McCauley will all need to stay out of the box and be productive on the front end while Louis Liotti and Dennis Chisholm need to be rocks on the blue line. Sophomore Wade MacLeod also needs to be highly visible as Tyler McNeely is likely out for the series with a hand/arm injury. Continuing contributions from freshmen Steve Quailer, Alex Tuckerman, and Mike McLaughlin can carry the team if the upperclassmen fail to produce.
I'm not as optimistic about this series as most, largely due to the awful performance I witnessed at BC and the awful performances they've put in against UMass earlier in the year. However, I still see the Huskies making a trip to the Garden for the first time in like a million years with a 2-1 series win.
This is how I think the other series' will play out (home teams in bold):
BU over Maine in 2 (oh, what I'd give for an upset...)
UNH over BC in 3
VT over UML in 3
Side note: I've been wanting a Vitale jersey for a while, but the school doesn't sell them because he's an NHL draft pick. I guess they like to have them on hand should he make the Penguins, but regardless, I've been trying to get one for a couple years now to no avail. So, when the awesome black third jerseys went on sale, I bought one with a plan to get it embroidered. A difficult task, Kira finally took me to the Flyers practice facility in Voorhees, NJ where I was finally able to get what I wanted. I got it in the mail yesterday, although I forgot to get the captain's C:
Looks good. Not perfect, but very good, and I'm happy with it. I'll put the C on sometime soon, although probably not until the offseason. For the record, the numbers on the sleeve aren't crooked, though they look that way.