Ryan Shea watched the puck roll and skid and hop and swerve from one end of the rink to the other. The wait was interminable and euphoric. The crossing of each line was like the emergence of another ping-pong-ball of a winning lottery ticket. Into the empty net it went.
“We’re going back to the championship,” said Shea, the senior captain, after his clearance goal with 50.7 seconds remaining clinched the Huskies’ 3-1 win over Harvard on Monday in the semifinal of the 68th Beanpot at TD Garden. “This is where we belong.”
For the sixth time in eight years, Northeastern (15-7-2) will be playing in the Beanpot final—against Boston University next Monday—in pursuit of the first three-peat in school history. For a program that had gone 29 years without winning the ultimate prize of Boston college hockey, the Huskies are now acting very much as though they know their way around this emotionally-taxing tournament.
Except for the fact that two of their difference-makers—goaltender Craig Pantano and forward Brendan van Riemsdyk—had never played in the Beanpot before leading Northeastern through the semifinal. Both had transferred to Northeastern after graduating from their previous colleges, enabling them to play for the Huskies without sitting out a year, per NCAA rules.
Pantano, who had arrived from Merrimack, generated 14 saves in the frantic final period, one more than he’d made in the preceding 40 minutes.
Van Riemsdyk, who came from New Hampshire, celebrated his go-ahead goal in the middle period with a sense of relief. It was only the second time he had scored all season.
“I couldn’t be more thankful,” van Riemsdyk said more than once. He sounded almost apologetic for not having scored more often for his new school. But winning in the Beanpot means never having to say you’re sorry.
The scoreboard had been frozen at 1-1 after a couple of first-period power-play goals when van Riemsdyk emerged in the closing half-minute of the second period. A Northeastern power play had expired just as Riley Hughes was sharing the puck along the board behind goal to Grant Jozefek, who spun quickly to release a pass as though competing in the discus. It found van Riemsdyk cutting in to blindside Harvard goaltender Mitchell Gibson.
“It’s a play they do quite a bit,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. Donato had studied that particular play. He had discussed it with his players. They had been prepared for it. And even then, the Huskies had used it for their most important win of the season, which explains how they have succeeded in remaking themselves into contenders year after year with vastly different styles. Players come and go, and the system—malleable as it is—rolls on.
The Huskies fell behind in the sixth minute when Nick Abruzzese’s short entry pass found Jack Drury, Harvard’s leading scorer, situated within whispering distance of Pantano’s left ear. He backhanded the puck to himself and wristed the Crimson (10-7-4) to the opening goal.
Northeastern responded seven minutes later with a Shea slapshot that was redirected by Zach Solow for his 11th goal of the season, enabling the Huskies to enter the first intermission even. They controlled the first half of the game before being outshot 14-7 in the third period.
Harvard, the national leader in power-play percentage, opened the final period with a five-on-three advantage after Northeastern sandwiched penalties around the intermission. The Crimson’s failure to score in those 104 seconds marked the turning point, said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan, which was why he credited Pantano as the game’s most valuable performer.
Northeastern students filled the upper deck like a rowdy choir of guardian angels overlooking Pantano’s shoulder as the Crimson rushed and he held them off. Each save was preceded by a gasp and followed by a roar that strengthened Pantano’s resolve. It was a game-winning period that would have made his predecessor, Cayden Primeau, MVP of last year’s Beanpot, proud.
Liberation came when Shea cleared the puck from his own circle. But that sense of relief doesn’t count for much, not in this tournament. Madigan wanted nothing to do with questions of what a three-peat would mean for Northeastern, No. 8 nationally in the PairWise rankings.
“I’d rather answer that question if we could actually do it,” he said.
He’ll find out soon enough.