This postseason, Northeastern boasts the two best goalies in the nation

Northeastern goalie Devon Levi in action.
Devon Levi, a sophomore who ranks among the national leaders in goaltending, is making his Hockey East tournament debut for Northeastern. Photo by Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics

At this crucial point of the ice hockey season, when a loss can mean the end and each victory may lead to a championship, we bring you this amazing statement:

Northeastern enters its big playoff weekend with, arguably, the two best goaltenders in the nation.

Aerin Frankel leads her Huskies into the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship as the reigning national player of the year. Her school-record 11 shutouts rank first in the NCAA, and her 1.03 goals-against average and .957 save percentage are best among goalies with at least 20 appearances this season.

Devon Levi, back from his monthlong stint with Canada at the Beijing Olympics, leads his Huskies into the Hockey East Men’s Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the first time. Levi ranks in the top three nationally with a .953 save percentage (second), a 1.45 goals-against average (third), and 10 shutouts (second), putting him in a photo-finish race with his friend and former youth teammate from Montreal, Yaniv Perets of Quinnipiac University.

Frankel is closing out her five years at Northeastern (with an extra season granted by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic) while Levi, a sophomore, is just beginning his college career. Each defends the net with a unique self-made style. But they share two important qualities: Both are undersized and therefore went undervalued in high school; and both hate yielding goals.

Northeastern goalie Aerin Frankel in action.

Aerin Frankel, the reigning national player of the year, is focused on leading the Huskies to the women’s national championship. Photo by Jim Pierce/Northeastern Athletics

“Even in practice, Aerin gets mad when she gets scored on,” says Dave Flint, coach of the No. 3 Northeastern women (30-4-2), who will be meeting defending champion Wisconsin Saturday at 1 p.m. at an NCAA quarterfinal game at Matthews Arena. “The most important thing when you’re finding a goalie is, ‘What is their compete level?’ The two of them are off the charts in regard to that.”

Since returning from the Olympics, Levi has gone 4-1 while yielding five goals on 190 shots to steady the Northeastern men (24-11-1). He tied a school record with 60 saves in his first game back from China—a 3-1 win over Connecticut—and his shutout at Merrimack last Saturday enabled the Huskies to win their first-ever Hockey East regular-season title on Aidan McDonough’s dramatic goal with 9.5 seconds remaining.

“The dedication, the work that he puts in every single day—I’ve never seen anything like that,” senior defenseman Julian Kislin says of Levi. “We can take more chances on the ice knowing that Devon’s got our back. He’s nothing like any goalie I’ve ever played with before.” 

Different approaches

Kislin was a Northeastern freshman when he teamed with Cayden Primeau, who moved on to the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens after winning the Mike Richter Award in 2019 as the NCAA’s top goaltender. 

“Cayden is right there with him, neck and neck—he’s an unbelievable goalie,” Kislin says. “But they are two completely different people. So it’s pretty crazy to watch how two amazing goalies can do different things and still perform the way they do.”

Primeau was relaxed and easygoing before games at Northeastern. Levi, by contrast, begins his preparation on the eve of each game, in bed, visualizing the plays he’ll be making the next day.

“I’m getting in a mindset where I’m excited to wake up the next morning and start my preparation that day,” says Levi, who will be leading Northeastern into a Hockey East quarterfinal against Boston College on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Matthews. “I’ll still be loosey-goosey at the beginning of the day, because I don’t think you need to kill yourself mentally by dialing it in for a full 24 hours. That’s a bit extreme.”

In the final three hours before game time, his teammates hear thumping from the other side of the locker-room wall. Levi covers one eye while fielding a tennis ball approaching him from all angles, a bit like Luke Skywalker being introduced to The Force by Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“You might as well put a blindfold over him,” says senior defenseman and team captain Jordan Harris. “He’ll still be trying to catch the ball.”

Frankel, for her part, can be found in the lobby of Matthews juggling a soccer ball with several teammates. Relaxing with them contributes to her remarkable reaction times, she finds.

“I especially pay attention to what time I’m going to bed and how I’m eating, starting on Tuesday,” Frankel says of her preparation for a typical Friday night game. “The first three sleeps leading up to competition are very important. I like to pay a lot of attention to being well rested because ultimately that’s when I can perform at my best—that and eating right and limiting my time on electronics, especially on game day. I’m not really on my phone or using technology as I think it tires out my eyes a little bit.”

Different styles

Frankel on Levi: “Devon seems very relaxed at all times. He looks like he’s in a zone. He’s very athletic but also extremely technical, and it seems like he has a rhythm, a kind of rhyme or reason for everything he does. If you ask him, ‘Why do you play this way?’ he will definitely have a reason for what he does. He’s very purposeful.”

Levi on Frankel: “She’s a really smart goalie, really good at reading stick blades, reading shots. She’s always there in advance, which gives her the opportunity to get set earlier, and she makes the game look easy. Shots that a lot of goalies probably would let in, she makes the save. It’s pretty impressive, especially at her height.”

At 5 feet 5 inches, Frankel wasn’t heavily recruited from Shattuck-Saint Mary’s, a high school hockey powerhouse in Minneapolis. She surprisingly won the Northeastern starting job as a freshman and last weekend finished her Hockey East career with an 18-0-0 record in its tournament playoffs.

Levi became an overnight star in Canada last year at the World Junior Championship, where he surrendered only five goals in seven games while leading his country to the final. An injury suffered during the tournament prevented him from playing last season for Northeastern, which has gone 13-12-3 without him over the past two years (and 21-8-1 with him). He devoted last season to studying his team as well as the rival goalies of Hockey East.

“The mental part is the biggest part of goaltending,” says Levi, a seventh-round NHL draft pick whose rights are held by the Buffalo Sabres. “Everyone is very athletic, very strong, and has a solid technical foundation. You could have all the tools and not know how to use them; you could have a few tools and know how to use them really, really well. So the difference-maker is what goes on in your head.”

At 6 feet tall, Levi has embraced his identity as an undersized goalie. 

“I was definitely overlooked because of my height,” he says of the coaches and evaluators who have been surprised by his breakthrough. “And I don’t blame them, because it’s not easy to understand unless you’re doing it every day. For me, it’s really easy to understand how important the mental side is because it’s what wins me games, what loses me games, what affects my performance the most.”

Levi’s signature move happens during timeouts when he skates out to the blue line and turns around to stare in the direction of his goal. His explanation reveals the depth of his meditative approach.

“I’m not necessarily looking at my net,” Levi says. “I turn my back to the game for a few seconds, just to be able to reset mentally and relax for a little bit. Because if you stay ‘on’ the whole game, if you’re working hard and you don’t give your mind and body a rest as you go up, up, up—then there’s always an equivalent down. 

“I just want to stay balanced throughout the game. I work hard when the play is on. And then when the play is done, that’s when I go take my rest. I get my heart rate down, I go to my low. And then I can ramp it back up, so that I don’t take a crazy pitfall towards the end of the game and have no energy.”

Flint sees a major difference in style between Frankel and Levi.

“I would say he’s technically more sound than Aerin,” says Flint. “I watch him, his movements, and everything is very technical and tight. But Aerin is smaller. She’s more of a reactionary goalie—a reflex goalie who stops pucks. It doesn’t matter how she stops them. She just finds a way, where Devon is more methodical, more efficient with his movement.”

Levi reacted to his underdog status by thinking through his approach, day by day, minute by minute. His style is nothing like Frankel’s. She accounts for her size by skating away from her net, cutting off angles and taking on shooters aggressively and instinctively. That is why Flint would never try to alter her style—it’s a natural expression of who she is that enables her to cope with big-game pressure while stopping pucks that other goaltenders might not see.

“Goalies develop their style and what works for them,” Flint says. “Aerin will be the first to tell you she wants to be more efficient and technical. But that’s not her game. You don’t want to start messing with that. We try to do little fine-tuning things that she can do better, but I’m not about to switch how she plays, because she’s figured out over the years what works for her. 

“I’m guessing Devon is a little more cerebral in his approach. Somewhere along the way, he discovered that he can switch off for a minute and that can help him maintain his focus. So it’s pretty neat to see how they’re both such good goalies but how they’re so different.”

Similar outcomes

Both Northeastern teams are blessed with a depth of talent. While Levi was at the Olympics, true freshman T.J. Semptimphelter was awarded as the top goalie at the Beanpot. Flint says junior Gwyneth Philips, Frankel’s backup, may be the second-best goalie in the nation.

“One reason Aerin’s so good is because she’s got Gwyn pushing her,” Flint says. “It’s reassuring for me to know we’ve got at least two more years of great goaltending.”

Flint and men’s coach Jerry Keefe appreciate how quickly their goalies defer credit to their teammates, for good reason: All-American Skylar Fontaine (the lone defenseman among the 10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award) and team captain Brooke Hobson occupy the line in front of Frankel, while Levi is complemented by the likes of Jayden Struble, Kislin, and Harris—the latter rating as the top defenseman in the country.

“I do think Devon is the best goaltender in the country,” Keefe says. “But he also needs a good team in front of him. We’re trying to help around the net so he doesn’t have to dive all over the place making second and third saves. It’s a team effort.”

Frankel’s inherent selflessness was tested by the Kazmaier award and other honors she earned last season. It would have been easy for her to become distracted by personal stats. But she has remained centered on the needs of her team.

“Her approach is to win a national championship,” Flint says. “If you have a year like that where everything goes right, I think the toughest part is trying to live up to that expectation again. She’s done a really good job of just blocking that out. She’s dialed in every day, she’s focused, she doesn’t ever worry about stats.”

The Northeastern men, No. 14 nationally in the Pairwise rankings, are depending on a deep run in the Hockey East playoffs as they pursue a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The women face an NCAA elimination game against Wisconsin, their opponent when they lost the championship final one year ago.

In both cases, there will be pressure on the two Northeastern goaltenders. But Frankel speaks for herself and Levi when she views these crucial games as opportunities.

“I always try to be positive,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to not put pressure on yourself and get caught up in scenarios where your team is relying on you so much. But you have a responsibility to your team to be focused and to not allow those thoughts to creep in. The best goalies are the mentally tough ones.”

Frankel and Levi have been developing that toughness throughout their young careers. It is a source of inspiration for both Huskies teams. Opponents view them as dominant. But they, in their hearts, are still underdogs.

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