WORCESTER, Mass. — If there’s one thing to know about Northeastern’s hockey team, it’s that it has an absurd top line. This line has accounted for over half of the team’s goals this season and has two Hobey Baker Top 10 Finalists in junior Adam Gaudette and senior Dylan Sikura.
With an offensive unit so accomplished, it’s easy to overlook anyone else. But when Saturday’s game came to an end, the spotlight would instead be on Michigan’s own elite top line, maybe not outwardly as famous, but a group that has been equally as crucial to its team’s success this season.
And the Regional Semifinal game of the NCAA Tournament would be no exception. Anchored by two goals from junior Cooper Marody and one from senior Dexter Dancs, the 2nd-seeded Wolverines (21-14-3) extended their season with a 3-2 defeat of the 3rd-seeded Huskies (23-10-5) at the DCU Center. With this victory, Michigan advances to the Regional Final held Sunday and will battle No. 4 Boston University for a spot in the Frozen Four.
“I thought it was a hard-fought, gritty hockey game tonight, and I’m really proud of our team,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Marody, Calderone, Dancs, all week they asked us if they could play against Northeastern’s top line, and I thought they did an outstanding job. And really, that’s the story of the game to me.”
But that storyline took time before it could come to fruition. The first period began in a back-and-forth dance, with both teams getting to the goal but not getting off many viable shots despite creating strong set ups.
Six minutes into the game, Northeastern put itself in the strongest positioning either team had seen to that point. The Huskies fired a flurry of shots at sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne, who was forced to make a series of quality saves.
Halfway into the period, the Wolverines countered, with junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi leading the charge, smacking three shots in a row at Northeastern’s Cayden Primeau. The freshman goaltender stood strong though, preventing the puck from breaking through.
This marked an apparent shift towards an increased pace of play in the game. Over the next five minutes, the puck traversed from one side of the ice to the other, with both teams seeing many quality looks, causing each goaltender to heighten their focus. Still, no team had found the net. And no one had been sent to the box either.
But with just over three minutes remaining in the period, Michigan made the one real error it was warned not to in this game — take a penalty against a team that converts 27.22 percent of the time on its power play.
Sophomore forward Jake Slaker was sent to the box for tripping, and the Wolverines would take the first penalty in what was playing out to be an unusually clean game. Fighting off the Huskies’ elite special teams unit, with much of the heavy lifting coming from freshman forward Dakota Raabe, Michigan managed to escape the two-minute hot seat unscathed. Soon after the penalty expired, the teams went into their first intermission, with the game still locked up at 0-0.
The second period got off to a quiet start, with the puck going up and down the ice once again. Despite solid looks from both teams and dangerous shots as well, Michigan found nearly 10 on-target shots over the first half of the period while Northeastern did not see any.
With 9:30 left in the period, the Huskies’ Matt Filipe would change this. The forward broke away with the puck, then weaved his way through the Wolverines’ blue line to challenge Lavigne, who protected his net with a big stop.
Though Northeastern got this on-target shot off, it wouldn’t see many more over the next few minutes. Michigan, on the other hand, kept shots coming. With 4:57 remaining in the period, this would pay off.
The Wolverines had been advised that early scoring would be key in this game. And though near the end of the second period, Marody drove the puck behind the crease and then positioned himself for a clear shot, five-holing Primeau, to give Michigan the first lead of the game.
And that’s when the ball started to roll. Just two minutes after the Wolverines found the net, they again fell into the trap of allowing Northeastern to gain a man-advantage. Junior forward Brendan Warren was sent to the box on a hooking penalty, and a minute into the power play, Sikura sent in the equalizer.
Despite, this goal, Michigan was generally able to limit playing with a man down, taking just two penalties throughout the course of the game. Pearson was pleased with the Wolverines on this front.
“Tonight, for the most part I thought we did a great job and limited (Northeastern) in the opportunities (it) had,” he said. “We stayed on the ice, I think that’s one of the keys.”
Choppiness started to become evident in the game after Sikura’s goal. Just 30 seconds later, another member of Northeastern’s top line, Nolan Stevens, took the Huskies’ first penalty of the day with goaltender interference, giving Michigan a power play that would carry over into the final period.
“I was more concerned with the last two minutes of the period,” Pearson said. “It’s about the last shift after a goal that can change momentum. So thought it was good, we got in the locker room, we got settled down, I thought we had a good period after that.”
The Huskies began the period by killing off their penalty, keeping the score tied up at 1-1.
Six minutes into the period, though, the Wolverines claimed the lead once again. Dancs stole the puck, taking it solo on a breakaway, setting himself up to backhand it into Northeastern’s net.
The goal sparked fierce responses in both teams, with close shot attempts from both teams over the next few minutes of play.
The Huskies began a desperate campaign for response. And their efforts paid off with eight minutes left in regulation. Defenseman Eric Williams took a shot from the point, and didn’t look back, keeping Northeastern in the high stakes contest.
But Marody countered, contributing his second goal of the night with just minutes remaining, putting Michigan up for the last time in the game. Despite an empty net attempt from the Huskies with around a minute left, this would be all the Wolverines needed to complete their win.
As the game was determined by Marody’s goal, his line was proud of its accomplishments, especially given the challenge of going head to head with the Huskies’ top line.
“All week, we heard about how their line is the best line in college hockey,” Dancs said. “Playing here, this is my fourth year here, Cooper’s third and Tony’s fourth and you know, we play for those challenges … but we wanted that challenge and we wanted to show everyone that we’re in the Big Ten, a good league and we’ve played against good players all year.”
And as Michigan was able to outplay inarguably one of the best lines in all of collegiate hockey, this should be an encouraging sign as the Wolverines advance in the tournament, where, indisputably, new challenges are sure to arise.