BOSTON – Points were at a premium for the Northeastern Huskies heading into Friday’s Hockey East series opener with the No. 10 Maine Black Bears at Matthews Arena and the hosts did everything in their power to earn two crucial points in the conference race.
With New Hampshire’s 4-3 win at the Mullins Center in Amherst, the Huskies now sit two points clear of the Minutemen for eighth place in the standings after breaking a five-game losing streak against the Black Bears with a 4-2 win.
The win was Northeastern’s first in five games, marking the Huskies’ first triumph since junior Vinny Saponari scored in overtime to beat UMass before the Beanpot on Feb. 3.
“I’m obviously very happy with the win,” said Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan. “Two big points for us…I thought our guys played really hard and gritted it out. It was close all the way all the way through against a really good hockey club. They are well-coached and play the game really hard.”
The Huskies played a very strong, playoff-worthy first period and took a 1-0 lead at the 10:25 mark. Northeastern out-chanced Maine 20-14 in the period, despite putting less than half of those opportunities on sophomore Dan Sullivan’s net.
On the goal, sophomore Anthony Bitetto dished the puck to junior Garrett Vermeersch at the center point for a slap shot through traffic that trickled over the left shoulder of Sullivan.
The goal broke a four-game streak without a point for the Island Park, N.Y. native and extended Vermeersch’s point streak to three games.
It did not take much time for the Black Bears to avenge a slow first period as a pair of Massachusetts-born seniors connected for yet another goal on the season just 15 seconds into the stanza.
Lynnfield’s Brian Flynn deflected in Salem native Will O’Neill’s shot over the left-hand blocker of junior Chris Rawlings for his 17th of the season, extending a three-game point streak and scoring his first since a two-goal effort last Friday against UMass.
Maine took a 2-1 lead while skating on a five-minute disadvantage at 9:56 as senior Spencer Abbott converted for the 17th time this season, tipping a pass from junior Joey Diamond right on the right post.
Northeastern looked to have tied the game in the final stretch of the major power play as captain Mike McLaughlin tipped in a loose puck with his skate. After a lengthy video review with 6:37 remaining in the period, it was determined that it was deflected just inside the left-hand post with a distinct kicking motion.
The Huskies quickly responded to officially tie the score at 2-2 when junior Justin Daniels capped off a 2-on-1 rush with his seventh goal of the season at 14:30, taking a pass from freshman Joseph Manno and lifting it over Sullivan.
Maine held a similar 10-7 advantage in shots on goal over the second period, while taking 23 total chances on the net.
The Huskies had glorious chances all throughout the third period, but could not get anything past Sullivan to unequal the score. Their best chance of the game came with 4:22 left in regulation as McLaughlin was open on the left post, but could not handle the pass and stuff it between the goaltender’s pad.
NU finally broke through at the 18:46 mark as freshman Adam Reid scored past Sullivan, beating him for his sixth of the season into a virtually free net. With just 15 seconds remaining, NU iced the game on an empty-net goal by Saponari as he took the cross-ice feed from junior Steve Quailer.
“I was getting some chances,” said Quailer, who was coming back from an injury and playing in his first game since the Vermont series on Jan. 27-28. “I figured I would spread the love and give it to Vinny. He’s a good guy.”
“He adds so much to our line-up,” said Madigan. “Even before we get on the ice, he just adds an awful lot to our locker room. He’s willing to say the right thing at the right time for us as a team. He’s strong on pucks, he’s good in the defensive zone, he’s good in the neutral zone and then he gets opportunities…He keeps pucks alive and going. He’s a big part of our team…”
Rawlings posted a terrific bounce-back performance for his 12th win of the season, posting 25 saves and 11 in the third period to earn the victory. Dan Sullivan posted a strong 29 stops, including two double-digit stanzas on the night.
With the defeat, the Black Bears now sit in a fourth-place tie with a victorious Merrimack squad. The Warriors own the tiebreaker with a 2-0-1 record against Maine, so that means the Black Bears would pack up and hit the road for a quarterfinal series if the season had ended.
“One thing that stands out pretty good is the amount of penalties (seven) we took,” Whitehead said. “Certainly, the penalties cost us. Northeastern deserved the win. We were clawing back in there and had an opportunity to win it, with our second period especially…It was just a costly turnover and they capitalized.”
The Huskies will look to come back and steal the season series from the Black Bears as the two teams complete the weekend at Matthews Arena on Saturday. NU is now 3-1-1 in the last five contests against Maine on St. Botolph Street, dating back to Dec. 5, 2008.