ST. LOUIS — They are an overlooked group at times, the Boston College defense.
Very quietly the defensive corps of the Boston College Eagles has steadily improved despite injuries and additions to its regulars. Since mid-February they have been solid in almost every area and that success has brought this team once again to the cusp of a national title.
“At they beginning of the season, I think we tried to do too much. I know I was certainly guilty of that,” said sophomore Brett Motherwell as the team gathered for breakfast Friday morning. “Now we’re doing the little things. Gapping up, picking up sticks, playing the body. We’re succeeding because of those things.”
According to those on the blue line, a lot of credit goes to assistant coach Greg Brown. Brown will regularly cut up game film of NHL defensemen doing things he’d like to see his kids do, and he shows it to them very concretely.
“He is very good at showing you what he wants you to do, and doesn’t waste time showing you what not to do,” said Motherwell. “That helps us focus on proper technique, and it has helped.”
Looking every bit as young and fit as any of his players, Brown was quick to deflect any credit that came his way as he lounged in his dark red and gold Boston College track suit. As he was as a player, Brown feels the success comes from everyone’s hard work and attention to detail.
“I get ideas from Jerry (York) and Mike Brennan, who is our defensive leader,” said Brown following BC’s 6-4 win over North Dakota in the national semifinal. “It is really a group effort. Our defensemen could not play as well as they do if the forwards were not playing the way they need to. Having [goaltender] Cory Schneider behind us is also a huge key. He gives the D’s a lot of confidence to be aggressive.”
That aggressiveness can be seen in a guy like Brennan, who will often size up an even-man rush and look to jump out of his lane if the attackers crisscross so he can lay a big hit. It is play like Tim Filangieri’s block of a shot in the third period where he had to charge out and then dive to prevent a scoring chance.
“Defense is such a team game,” said Brown. “The key is when guys know their roles, and we certainly have been able to establish that with this group. Brian Boyle was moved back there because of injuries, but he has stayed there because he adds a presence. Peter Harrold was like that, a presence, a force. He adds leadership, and he has filled the role we need him to fill as well as expected.”
The aforementioned Brennan is a huge cog in this wheel. A few years ago, York was on Long Island looking at two defensemen, needing one. Both played a similar hard-nosed defensive style and had some offensive instincts. York asked long time area coach Henry Lazar who he should take, Brennan or the other one (who I’ll respect and keep nameless but mention that he also briefly played Division I).
Lazar said he liked both, but Brennan would be his captain one day; the other he wasn’t sure would finish school.
That prophecy turned out to be 100% correct. Brennan, now an alternate captain, is spoken of by BC coaches as someone who has grown into a great leader by carefully watching the great leaders with whom he shared a dressing room his first two years. Guys with names like Gionta, Eaves, Shannon, Harrold, and Alberts all had influences on the sponge-like persona of Brennan.
It shows in Brennan now. Once a happy-go-lucky kid (which hasn’t entirely changed), he now carries an edge in his game and a carries himself like a leader. Among the last to leave the dressing room, Brennan works the postgame room like a politician. He usually checks in with everyone, says “nice game” or “how you feeling?” to teammates after games. Part Tony Soprano and part Tony Danza, his charisma does not go unnoticed by those who follow this team.
Brennan got clipped by North Dakota’s T.J. Oshie in the game Thursday night, and was cut across the chin for what was predicted would be four stitches. Seeing him after the game in a crowd with Boyle, Filangieri, Schneider, and Joe Rooney, Brennan showed the cut to the group and said, “Do you believe they want me to get stitches? Me? I’ve cut myself worse shaving.”
It was a nice moment between teammates, but underneath it was Brennan saying “This is nothing, boys; I’m ready for Saturday.”
Brennan’s emergence has boosted a young defense that includes rookie Carl Sneep, who has matured after a slow start. Sneep came to BC on a tip from a former York captain at Bowling green, Ty Aigner. Coaching at Brainerd High School in Brainerd, Minn., (great golfing country), Aigner told York the kid was worth a chance, and he was right.
Sneep’s physical presence has helped clear the slot, win battles on walls, and he makes a good first pass out. You can see Brown’s offensive skills starting to emerge in Sneep as his confidence with the puck and ability to move it quickly and intelligently have improved.
Heading into the finals, Brennan feels that this unit is tight.
“We’re so focused, and that is because of one thing,” Brennan said, holding up one finger like Curly did to Mitch in “City Slickers.” “That is communication. We talk a lot as a group, especially on the ice, and Cory has been great at improving his vocal presence behind us. It gives us an extra pair of eyes.”
Tim Filangieri agrees.
“This team talks on the ice like a good team does,” said the sophomore defenseman who was the number-one defenseman on the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL when they won a league title in 2004. “When you have that level of communication, your job is easier.”
Brennan laughed when discussing the defense as an offensive unit.
“Look around here,” he said as he pointed out the array of offensive players milling around the lobby waiting for breakfast. “Rooney, Gerbe, Bradford, Bertram, Smith, Ferriero, and when he’s up front, Boyle. You’re telling me I have to score? Honestly, our job is to prevent Cory from second shots and screens, and to get the puck to those guys crisply and with speed and support. I think as the season has gone on, we have improved on that.”
Brown and his partner in crime Mike Cavanaugh will dissect the video of Michigan State, especially the ’09 line of Justin Abdelkader, Tim Crowder, and Tim Kennedy. Brown will discuss the offensive tendencies of MSU with his D-corps.
“We’ll show them a bit,” said Brown. “However, as in any game, we’ll ask them to read and react to what is in front of them. So many variables can happen on the rush or during offensive zone play. The credit goes to the players because they have been asked to be good listeners and then to go out and improve and execute and they have. Guys like Brennan and Boyle have pushed this group to be better and they responded.”
Brown, a defenseman by trade, has been able to bond with his D’s and push them because he did what he is asking them to do. From his days as a player at BC to his pro, international, and Olympic experience, he has proven that he can translate his message to his guys, from one defenseman to his corps of them, and for that credit can be given to York. When Ron Rolston left BC to take over the USNDTP, York hired a defenseman to replace him, and the move has paid off.
For a team known for its offensive stars, keep your eyes on its back line. On this team, the defense never rests.