Despite their recent domination of the Beanpot, the Huskies are underdogs vs. No. 2 BU in the title game 7:30 p.m. Monday at TD Garden.
At first glance, the 71st men’s Beanpot final may look like a mismatch for defending champion Northeastern. The Huskies, the eighth-place team in Hockey East, are underdogs against Boston University, which rose to a No. 2 national ranking after its recent semifinal win over No. 1 Boston College.
But neither team is focusing on records nor rankings as they prepare for the championship game at 7:30 p.m. Monday at TD Garden (televised by NESN and streaming on ESPN+ with live updates throughout the game at Northeastern Global News).
What really matters to the Huskies (12-12-2) and Terriers (18-7-1) are their two meetings over the past month, with each team winning 4-3 in overtime on its home ice.
“We know if we play a certain way we can have success against them,” says Northeastern coach Jerry Keefe, whose Huskies have risen to No. 20 nationally based on their current five-game winning streak. “From a confidence standpoint we should feel good about that.”
Red's our color. pic.twitter.com/FZDPyewgRj— Northeastern Men’s Hockey (@GoNUmhockey) February 6, 2024
Red's our color. pic.twitter.com/FZDPyewgRj
The Huskies have plenty going for them historically. They’re making a sixth straight appearance in the men’s Beanpot final. They’ve won four of the past five titles. They have a chance to clinch a back-to-back sweep of this year’s tournaments following Northeastern’s successful title defense last month in the historic Women’s Beanpot final at TD Garden.
And the Huskies are getting hot at the right time. A rash of early-season injuries — felt especially at the defensive end — put them in a hole from which they’re just now escaping. Even while falling five games below .500 last month, Keefe saw promising signs.
His injury-depleted Huskies were remaining competitive game by game within Hockey East, the nation’s dominant conference this season.
“Sometimes when you go through that adversity, you’re a better team in the end,” Keefe says. “We’ve had to battle back for sure. But we always knew we’ve got a good hockey team.”
The Huskies have gone 3-2 vs the top three schools in Hockey East — BC, BU and Maine. Those teams are ranked in the top four nationally and Northeastern has outscored them by an aggregate 19-16 in those games this season.
Those results support the Huskies’ confidence approaching this latest rematch of their rivalry with BU and its 17-year-old freshman Macklin Celebrini, the likely No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft this June.
“Our team has found an identity and they know when we play that way we can have success,” Keefe says. “Every team’s identity is different and it takes time to build. I always think that identity is what your team looks like when they’re playing their best hockey.”
For Northeastern it means playing offense below the goal line, which leaves the opposing goaltender feeling vulnerable while opening the offensive zone for attacks by all five Huskies. Defensively it means getting back in transition, putting friendly bodies between the puck and freshman goalie Cameron Whitehead — and then fast-breaking the other way.
“It’s about trusting it and believing in it,” Keefe says of the high-effort, team-minded approach. “Our team right now trusts the way we have to play and we’re starting to see some results.”Leading that commitment is junior captain Justin Hryckowian, who had a hand in all of Northeastern’s goals in its 3-2 semifinal comeback win over Harvard. Hryckowian put away the third-period equalizer after a scrum in front of the net, then fed the overtime winner to Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, who has scored three goals in his last two Beanpot games.
“He came in here with tremendous details and hockey smarts,” Keefe said of Hryckowian after the semifinal. “But I think he’s worked on his game so much that it’s hard to not get better. He’s a driven kid and he does take a lot of pride in playing both sides of the puck.
“He’s such a great example for all of our players — and as a group Northeastern hockey is about that, we want skilled players but we want guys to play honest, to play the right way. But you’ve got to give him credit because he puts the work in and takes a lot of pride in it.”
Hryckowian, who was honored as the top defensive forward in Hockey East last year, has generated 26 points (including 7 goals) in 22 games this season.
“The coaching staff harps on it every day,” Hryckowian said while celebrating the semifinal win. “I think we all take pride in being 200-foot players and doing the little things right.
“To get to the next level you need to have a complete game and that’s what we’ve worked on every day. Since I came in I’ve grown so much — our whole team has — so I think it gives us an advantage.”
The Huskies have had a full week off to recover from their recent string of wins while fine-tuning for BU. Much of the preparation involves learning from the program’s six-year run of success at TD Garden, says Keefe.
“Matt Demelis has already won two Beanpots,” Keefe says of his fifth-year forward. “Guys that he played with had won two or three Beanpots. And they talk — they’re teammates, they help each other out on how to prepare for games like this. It’s a combined effort for everyone involved.
“A lot of it has to do with your leadership because that gets passed down.”