NCAA Hockey 101: Is Northeastern finally great?

Adam Gaudette (right) of the Northeastern Huskies celebrates a goal with teammate Jeremy Davies (left). (Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

For the last few years, the big question in Hockey East has always been, “What if Northeastern had goaltending?”

This wasn’t a question of having great goaltending, or even good goaltending. We’re talking national-average save percentages. The past three full seasons, their goaltenders averaged .905, .903 and .898, all of which were below the national average — which itself tends to be about 10 points below the Hockey East average, making the problems even more severe.

And these were otherwise good teams from top to bottom. Even with these issues, the clubs finished with positive goal differentials approaching plus-30 each of those three seasons and were therefore winning more games than they were losing (they’re 11 games over .500 in that stretch) but in any given game there would be that creeping sense of dread: “What’s going to go wrong tonight?”

Indeed, just speaking mathematically, if Northeastern got national-average goaltending over the three seasons leading up to this one, they allow a total of seven, six, and 15 fewer goals than they actually did, and that big number from last year is the killer. Giving up 15 fewer goals flips three losses to three wins, making them a borderline NCAA tournament team.

This season, however, the goaltending is now pretty much in line with the national average, and trending upward. Freshman Cayden Primeau has a .908 save percentage, and it’s only that low because he had a pretty bad night in one game against a good Quinnipiac team, in which he gave up six goals on 15 shots. Otherwise, he’s stopped 110 of 117 (.940). Of course, this is a small sample and Northeastern has had mediocre goalies outperform their talent levels for 20 or 25 games over the course of a season, but the difference between Primeau and his predecessors is in the pedigree.

Primeau is drafted, for one thing, basically a starter as a true freshman who just last season medalled as the No. 1 goalie for the U.S. at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and World Junior A championships. His junior numbers last season were subpar, but so was the team in front of him, and Primeau battled injury issues throughout the year.

So far this year, Primeau’s one bad game is, again, holding back otherwise sterling stats, and even despite that issue, he’s still better at stopping high-danger shots at 5-on-5 than the average of all the goalies in the 15 games I’ve seen so far this season.

With all that said, to this point, Northeastern seems to be getting what is roughly the national average save percentage, maybe a shade lower, even if things are badly skewed by a couple bad games. Consequently, it’s fair to say that the answer to the above question about “What if Northeastern had average goaltending?” is being answered right now.

With average goaltending, they’re 6-3-1 and currently look like the best team in Hockey East.

That’s because even beyond Primeau’s potential capabilities as a No. 1 in this conference, it’s fair to say this team is better throughout the lineup than it was last season, and that’s with the team having lost Hobey Hat Trick forward Zach Aston-Reese, who was the best forward in college hockey last year, to graduation.

The scoring depth the Huskies added this summer, from USHL leading scorer Zach Solow to the maturation of last season’s middle-sixers like Grant Jozefek and Matt Filipe, as well as the growth of a solid puck-moving D group are all very nice complements to what Northeastern’s three best returners from last season bring to the table.

Anyone following college hockey this season needs to watch carefully as Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura torch the top competition every other coach can put out against them. They both cleared 50 points last season in second-line/first power-play unit roles, and are now being asked to do more defensively. They’ve responded better than could have reasonably been expected.

Gaudette is up to 8-9-17 in 10 appearances, while Sikura — who missed this past weekend’s games against BU and Lowell — is 6-8-14 in eight games. They’ve combined for 85 shots between them; the rest of the team has just 243 combined. To some extent, you might expect that from two guys who play the vast majority of their teams’ power-play minutes (their shifts on the man advantage routinely last 90 seconds or more) but even at 5-on-5 they control the flow of the game far better than their teammates.

I’ve seen six of their 10 games so far this season, and while the Huskies are below water at 5-on-5 in all situations, their underlying numbers relative to the rest of Northeastern are quite good: plus 5.6 in corsi, plus-4 in fenwick, plus-1 in shots on goal, plus 7.2 in high-quality chances. This despite starting only about a third of their shifts in the offensive zone. It’s pretty impressive.

Of course, 5-on-5 numbers can be a bit misleading in college hockey, at least at the team level, and historically all-situations shots-on-goal numbers are more predictive of long-term success. To that end, Northeastern is outshooting opponents by 51 (an average of plus-5.1 per night, and they’re ranked 14th in the country at more than 54 percent SF% in all situations).

They’re also plus-17 in goals, with a power play running at 27.5 percent. And just as you’d like to see with any team that has a good power play, they’re getting five-plus a night, tied for 10th in the nation, while giving up slightly fewer to the opposition. Their PK has been a problem, though, running at just 77.8 percent. Nonetheless, if you’re drawing more penalties than you commit and you score at a higher rate than your opponent, you’re going to keep yourself in good shape.

And that, suffice it to say, is where Northeastern seems likely to stay this season, at the very least. Even if the goaltending takes a slight step back (which is, of course, possible) they still have an elite offense. And if Primeau actually keeps playing at a high level (which is starting to look probable, despite the one bad game) then this is not only a team to look out for in the conference, but one that could do some serious damage nationally.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Denver (swept St. Cloud)
2. St. Cloud (got swept at Denver)
3. Minnesota (took three points at Michigan)
4. North Dakota (took three points from Miami)
5. Northeastern (beat BU, lost at Lowell)
6. Harvard (lost at Colgate and Cornell)
7. Providence (split a home-and-home with UMass)
8. Minnesota State (swept at Bemidji)
9. Clarkson (won at Brown and Yale)
10. Western Michigan (split with Minnesota-Duluth)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.