The Northeastern University men’s hockey team won the Hockey East championship on Saturday, completing a historic turnaround and securing its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2009.
The win marked the Huskies’ 13th consecutive victory, the nation’s longest current winning streak, and catapulted the club into the consciousness of the college hockey cognoscenti.
Here, head coach Jim Madigan reflects on Northeastern’s remarkable run and looks ahead to Friday, when his club will face off against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The team began the season 1-11-2 and then did a 180, compiling a 21-2-3 record down the stretch en route to the conference title. To what do you attribute the remarkable turnaround?
The turnaround is a testament to our young men. Tactically, we put more of an emphasis on defending better and our players bought into it. Because of the early-season injuries to forwards Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges, we knew we had to play a certain style to be successful, a style focused on defense, which led to us spending more time in the attacking zone.
When did you hit the turning point in the season?
We were in Northern Ireland. It was the day after Thanksgiving and we had just lost to UMass-Lowell 3-2 in overtime. We played a great game against one of the top teams in the country and we walked away thinking we could play with the best.
Shortly after that, we played Boston College in a home-and-home series. We took away only one of a possible four points, but we led for five of the six periods and were the better team. We were still fragile coming out of that weekend, but we were building up more and more confidence.
Freshman goaltender Ryan Ruck has been a revelation, starting all but one of the team’s past 25 games and compiling a 2.26 goals against average and a .912 save percentage in his first season of college hockey. Are you surprised by his performance, particularly during the 13-game winning streak, when he’s allowed just 26 goals?
Ryan has gotten better and better as the season has gone along. Early on, he was struggling, but we stuck with him and he’s built up his confidence. The technical part of his game has improved, while his mental toughness has been one of his greatest attributes. He doesn’t get too high or too low, and you need that from a goalie. Goalies are going to give up bad goals from time to time, but it’s how they respond that’s important. And after giving up a goal 15 seconds into the Hockey East semifinal game against Boston College, he bounced back and battled. He has a great demeanor and a great disposition.
Kevin Roy was picked by some college hockey experts to be a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award this season. But he struggled in the first half of the year, amassing only five assists in the first 11 games before missing the next 13 with an injury. Since his return, however, he’s scored 10 goals and tallied 10 assists, looking more like the player everyone expected to see in October. In your view, what’s been the biggest difference in Roy’s game since his return to the lineup?
Early in the year, our team was struggling and Kevin was putting pressure on himself to score because he’s the captain and the leader of the team. And then he got a concussion and was out of the lineup for two months. But once he returned, he got his timing down, he got his hands and his feet aligned, and he’s gone on an unbelievable tear. Kevin has scored at every point in his career, whether in junior hockey or at the collegiate level—and when he does score, he scores big goals, overtime goals, goals that impact the game.
In what ways does he make his linemates better?
Because of his high-end skills and his playmaking ability, he draws the attention of two defenders, which creates openings on his ice and allows him to find open players. He’s like No. 1 pitcher in baseball who’s expected to shut down the opposition and set the tone for the rest of the staff. Roy is expected to draw attention and make big offensive plays.
Zach Aston-Reese and the Stevens brothers have carried the offense for much of the season, combining to score one-third of the teams goals. Who is one less-heralded offensive player who you think could make a big splash in the NCAA tournament?
Actually it’s the line of Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura, and Mike McMurtry. All three have played well all year long, each scoring about 30 points. And we need that line to be good for us in the national tournament. They had a great weekend at the TD Garden (where the Hockey East semifinal and championship were played), scoring big goals and making great plays. When they score, that takes the pressure off the No. 1 line.
North Dakota is unquestionably one of the best teams in the nation, ranked No. 3 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. What’s the key to beating them and advancing in the NCAA tournament?
They’re a hard team to play against. They have a good blend of skill and grit and physicality. And they can beat you in a number of ways, whether in a high scoring game or tight checking 2-1 type of game. There’s no doubt about it—we’ll have to bring our “A” game on Friday. As I told the players earlier in the week, while we haven’t played North Dakota this year, we have played North Dakota-like teams all season long and have had success.
I’m looking forward to watching our players respond in a big atmosphere. We’re excited to be back in the tournament—for the first time since 2009—and we believe we’re building a sustainable program, with this year being the culmination of the past two years. We have a really good future ahead of us. Success breeds success.