The road to recovery and the NCAA Tournament for Northeastern’s hockey team was nearly 3,000 miles long after starting the season 1-11-2.
Flash back to Nov. 27, the opening game of the inaugural Friendship Cup Tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Northeastern was one of four teams invited to play in the inaugural event, the first NCAA sanctioned games to be played overseas.
The Huskies entered the opening game against UMass Lowell with 10 losses and promptly picked up No. 11 after blowing a 2-1 lead with less than a minute remaining, falling 3-2 in overtime.
It was the seventh one-goal loss of the young season and frustrations boiled.
It turned into a galvanizing moment.
“We had some meetings after that one about everyone holding themselves accountable and doing what they need to do,” sophomore forward Nolan Stevens said. “We actually were playing well, just not the full 60 minutes so had to focus on every shift to the end. And we got healthy. But that trip really brought us together and we were already a close team. We went out and scored five goals in the second period the next game (7-1 win over Colgate) and we’ve been able to keep it going ever since.”
That may be the understatement of the hockey season.
Northeastern enters Friday’s Midwest Regional showdown in Cincinnati against 30-win North Dakota as the hottest team on the planet. The Huskies are 20-1-2 since leaving Belfast and haven’t lost since Feb. 1.
Last weekend, Northeastern completed its improbable drive to this weekend’s NCAA Tournament by beating that same UMass Lowell team by a 3-2 score in the Hockey East tournament title game.
So, congratulations, North Dakota, you earned a No. 1 regional seed and your reward is getting to face a Huskies squad riding a 13-game winning streak, longest in the nation.
Should the Fighting Hawks get past Northeastern, a possible showdown between arguably the top two freshmen in the country — Kyle Connor of Michigan and Brock Boeser of North Dakota — looms.
So does a confrontation between Michigan’s CCM Line (Connor, J.T. Compher and Tyler Motte, all Hobey Baker Award finalists) vs. North Dakota’s CBS Line (Drake Caggiula, one of the most electrifying seniors in the game; Boeser and Nick Schmaltz, both first-round NHL draft picks).
But that only happens if North Dakota can solve the riddle that is Northeastern and if Michigan can slip past one of the school’s biggest rivals: Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish and Wolverines square off in the Midwest’s second semifinal. It will be the teams’ first meeting since Notre Dame beat Michigan, 3-1, in the 2013 title game of the now-defunct CCHA.
When the CCHA dissolved, Michigan joined the Big Ten while Notre Dame joined Hockey East. The Irish’s 2013 title game victory ended the Wolverines’ NCAA record run of 22 consecutive tournament appearances.
The longest consecutive appearance streak in the nation now belongs to North Dakota, which is making its 14th consecutive NCAA appearance and is vying for its third consecutive Frozen Four berth and eighth in 12 seasons.
On Tuesday, Big Ten officials announced that Notre Dame will be leaving Hockey East in 2017 to join the Big Ten. The Fighting Irish will play next season in Hockey East, where it finished in third place this season.
Whoever wins the regional will have earned it by getting past some of the most explosive teams and players in college hockey.
The four teams have a combined 39 NHL draft picks on their roster, and Michigan’s CCM Line ranks first, second and fourth in the nation in scoring. Connor, the 17th overall pick in last year’s draft by the Winnipeg Jets, has 35 goals and 34 assists for 69 points. Motte has 31 goals and Compher 46 assists.
Connor has more goals and points than Notre Dame’s top two leading scorers combined. Andrew Bjork and Jake Evans have 33 points each.
But the Wolverines have faltered on defense. Though they lead the country in scoring at 4.9 goals per game, they rank in the lower half of Division I in defense allowing 3.0 goals per game. All four teams in the regional rank in the top 15 in scoring, with UND also ranking third in team defense.
Defense is where Notre Dame leads the region. The Irish’s strength is sophomore goalie Cal Petersen, who allows 2.19 goals per game and has a .928 save percentage.
The Fighting Hawks also have one of the best defensive units in the country. Sophomore goalie Cam Johnson ranks second in the nation in goals against average (1.64) and save percentage (.935) with five shutouts.
Northeastern’s wild card is the healthy return of senior forward Kevin Roy, who missed 12 games early in the season due to injury. Roy is playing as well if not better than anyone in college hockey and junior Zach Aston-Reese is the Huskies’ leading scorer with 43 points.
Stevens, along with his brother and linemate John, a junior, rank second and third in team scoring with 41 and 35 points, respectively.
They are the sons of John Stevens, associate head coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. The brothers are among six Huskies players with 10 or more goals.
The Midwest figures to provide the most fireworks. Nolan Stevens never doubted his team would be part of it.
“We play North Dakota-like talented teams all season in Hockey East,” he said. “I don’t think we ever lost confidence that we would be here right now.”