BOSTON — The first item on Northeastern’s to-do list was checked off about five weeks ago when the Huskies won their first Beanpot in 30 years, vanquishing Boston College and Boston University on the way to city bragging rights.
Next for seventh-ranked Northeastern is a Hockey East tournament championship. The semifinals are Friday night at TD Garden, where the Huskies will meet Providence. The winner will face Boston College or Boston University on Saturday for an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament.
Northeastern has long lived in the shadow of BC and BU, which have won 19 Hockey East titles and 10 NCAA championships between them. But the Huskies believe they can complete the hat trick with the program’s first NCAA title because of a precocious freshman goalie with NHL bloodlines, a dedication to defense and the most productive scoring line in the country.
Northeastern, 21-8-5 and the winner of seven consecutive games, has the nation’s Nos. 1 and 3 scorers: the junior center Adam Gaudette (1.64 points per game) and the senior right wing Dylan Sikura (1.58). The third member of the line, the senior captain Nolan Stevens, is 18th in points per game with 1.06.
Sikura is a multiskilled playmaker, Gaudette has a lethal shot and Stevens, at 6-foot-2 and 191 pounds, does a lot of the dirty work along the boards and in front of the net.
“We have a lot of chemistry together,” said Gaudette, who with Sikura is among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in men’s college hockey.
They are especially effective on the power play, accounting for 35 goals, and Northeastern’s 27.9 percent success rate with the man advantage is second in the country.
Stevens and Sikura have been linemates since their freshman year, but coach Jim Madigan elevated Gaudette to the top line in late January because of their synergy on the power play. Gaudette finished the regular season with 30 goals and 29 assists.
Madigan, who played at Northeastern and was an assistant coach on the previous Northeastern team to win the Beanpot, said the three players of the top line want the puck on their stick, “but they don’t mind finding the best option available in the offensive end.” He continued: “They’re very unselfish. All three have high-end hockey intelligence.”
They are the top three scorers this year in Hockey East, and have each been drafted by NHL teams: Sikura by Chicago in the sixth round in 2014, Gaudette by Vancouver in the fifth round in 2015 and Stevens by St. Louis in the fifth round in 2016.
The Huskies are fifth in the country in goals per game, but also fifth in goals-against per game. Tightening play in their own zone was emphasized from the start of the season.
“We knew we needed to get better there,” Madigan said. “The players’ commitment to defend really ratcheted up this year. That’s what has allowed us to get where we are.”
Goalie Ryan Ruck, now a junior, anchored the Huskies’ run to the Hockey East championship and the NCAA tournament in 2016, but he played only six games before an upper-body injury ended his season at the end of November.
That opened the door for freshman Cayden Primeau, who turned 18 in August.
But he came to Northeastern with abundant experience, including leading the U.S. Junior Select Team to a gold medal, with two shutouts, at the World Junior A Challenge last summer in Canada.
“He’s like the ace starter in baseball you can count on for eight strong innings,” Madigan said of Primeau, the son of a former Philadelphia Flyers captain, Keith Primeau. “He wants the pressure. He wants to be ‘the guy.’”
Primeau has played every game since Dec. 1. He stopped 75 of 77 shots in Northeastern’s two Beanpot victories, and ranks fifth in the country in goals-against (1.86) and save percentage (.933).
Gaudette, from nearby Braintree, Massachusetts, called Primeau “the backbone for us all year.”
“Last year, we had to score three, four, five goals to win,” he added. “He takes all the weight off our shoulders. That takes the pressure off our forwards, and allows our defensemen to be more creative.”
Providence coach Nate Leaman said: “They’re a team that can get out in front early, and then you’ve got to chase them, and that helps their defense. You can’t have letdowns against them.”
Ranked No. 7 in PairWise, which determines the seedings in the NCAA tournament, Northeastern is guaranteed a spot in the 16-team field, which begins play next weekend.
Still, Madigan is focused on this weekend at TD Garden, where in February the Huskies achieved their first goal.
“Regardless of what we’ve secured or haven’t secured,” he said, “we want to get into the NCAAs through winning the Hockey East tournament.”