If you’re a Boston College fan, this season has been one of the most maddening in recent history. Despite significant losses from last year’s club, the Eagles took clear top billing in the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll with seven of the nine first-place votes. (BC coach Jerry York could not vote for his own team. Hence, seven of nine instead of 10.)
The Eagles opened the season in grand fashion, winning eight of their first nine games, including five wins over teams that are now nationally ranked. So much for the attrition, most of us thought. It’s another Frozen Four year for BC.
Not so fast.
After that sizzling opening, the Eagles plummeted back to Earth with a 6-9-1 stretch that ended three weekends ago with a sweep at the hands of Maine. During that time, they managed back-to-back wins only once. The question was no longer whether BC was Frozen Four-bound but whether it was NCAA tournament-bound at all. And considering the five-pack atop Hockey East, getting to the Garden wasn’t even a foregone conclusion.
“We had some concerns coming into the year,” York says. “That senior class [Joe Whitney, Brian Gibbons, and John Muse] was such a dynamic class for us. Then when Cam Atkinson, Jimmy Hayes and Philip Samuelsson left, all of a sudden we were looking at not just the Whitney, Gibbons, and Muse troika. All of a sudden, it became six. That was the heart and soul of our club.”
So there have been growing pains, more than usual at the Heights. The Eagles, however, may have finally turned the corner. Two weekends ago, they swept New Hampshire. Then after a blank slate weekend, they demolished Northeastern 7-1, looking like the juggernaut of past seasons.
“Five of the 12 forwards are freshman and they’re getting a little bit better,” York says. “Barry Almeida is coming on and Chris Kreider is starting to become the player I envisioned he’d be on a more consistent basis.
“So if we can get solid in goal, I think we can become more consistent and make a pretty good stretch run.”
Aye, there’s the rub. Three weeks ago, Jim Connelly wrote about the BC inconsistencies in net that drove York to give senior Chris Venti the first starts of his career. Three-headed goaltending rotations rarely, if ever, fare well.
For now, Parker Milner has reestablished himself as the go-to guy, backstopping the three straight wins, his first action since the new year. Will that continue? We’ll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, the BC offense appears to have shifted into high gear at just the right time.
“They put a lot of pressure on you,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said after BC’s 7-1 humbling of his squad. “They’re coming all the time, regardless of whether you’re on the power play, a man down or five-on-five. Defensive zone, neutral zone, offensive zone. They’re just coming. They’ve got a high skill level and have a lot of confidence in their players.”
Which sounds like BC championship teams of recent vintage.
“We’ve got some players with good offensive instincts,” York says. “If they see a loose puck, they can jump on it and make a play. They can make something out of nothing. Speed allows you to do those things.”
Nowhere is that highlighted more than on the penalty kill, where Eagles defenders attack with regularity. The BC PK ranks first in Hockey East not only in percentage (86.5) but also in short-handed goals (10). Over the course of 28 games and 133 short-handed situations, some five-on-three, BC trails only 18-10. That’s a remarkable statistic. Perhaps Eagles fans should create an “Even strength!” chant for their penalty kill.
“If we can create a situation where [our opponent] has to make four or five passes to score a goal, so be it,” York says. “It’s hard to do that under pressure. Any situation where we’re down a man — [but] maybe not five-on-three — we try to really pressure and cause disruption. We try not to let teams do what they like to do.”
Having the right personnel helps, of course. But BC has been helping itself in that regard for many years under York’s guidance, opting for a mix that includes the small, quick player who can best exert that pressure. Brian Gionta. Ben Eaves. Nathan Gerbe. Brian Gibbons. Joe Whitney.
“I think we were one of the first college programs to recognize that smaller players who play with grit and are strong on their skates can be major, major factors in the game,” York says. “But you also have to have players like Chris Kreider, Jimmy Hayes, and Kevin Hayes — some of those bigger, stronger players. We look for a bit of balance.”
The Eagles seem to again have the balance they look for every year. If the goaltending comes through, look out.
Empty seats at the Beanpot
I’m not talking about the sea of empty orange-yellow seats during the third period of BC’s late-game thrashing of Northeastern. That must have looked atrocious on TV but can be explained away as a mere product of a blowout.
No, I’m talking about empty, unsold seats. Attendance for Monday night’s contest was 16,005, well short of the 17,565 capacity. This marked the first Beanpot game since the Blizzard of 1978 that wasn’t sold out.
(Thanks for Jim Connelly for pointing out this eye-popping fact.)
Playing for pride
Vermont hasn’t been mathematically eliminated from the Hockey East playoffs yet, but it’s pretty close. The Catamounts reside 11 points out of the final berth with only seven games left to play. For the math-phobes out there, that means that if Vermont wins every game and the teams ahead … well … let’s make this simple.
You don’t even have to look at the remaining schedule (in which the Catamounts face Boston College three times, Boston University twice and New Hampshire twice).
That, of course, poses real problems for a coach. The usual motivations have disappeared.
“We have to focus on the task at hand,” Catamounts coach Kevin Sneddon says. “One quote I like to provide our team with that puts things in perspective is a Winston Churchill quote: ‘Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It’s the urge to continue that counts.’
“Despite all the adversity with injuries and all the other things that have gone on this year, our guys just have a never-say-die attitude. That’s part of our culture here and for me right now, it’s making sure that we don’t have any slips in terms of our culture.
“That’s how we approach things in the classroom, the community, in the strength-and-conditioning facility, and certainly on the ice in practices and games. We’re going to coach as if we were undefeated and make sure that our guys are trying to get better every day.”
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago Sneddon was leading Vermont into the Frozen Four.
“There’s such a fine line between winning and losing,” he says. “The parity in college hockey is greater than ever. We’ve had some unfortunate snowball effects where we’ve gotten off to poor starts and it’s just steamrolled on us and we’ve been unable to come out of it for a number of different reasons.
“The puck stops here. The head coach is the guy that’s got to bring a team out of this. I feel badly, mainly for our seniors who had success in their freshman and sophomore years and rallied pretty nicely last year in the second half. But this year’s just been such a disappointment that as a coach you feel worse for those guys because they don’t have a next year.”
Speaking of which, next season could be a rebound year for the Catamounts since only one of the top 16 scorers is a senior (defenseman Drew MacKenzie). Even in goal, where senior Rob Madore has played close to every single game for four years now, sophomore Alex Vazzano has started two of the last three games and played part of the third.
“Our younger guys are doing a great job,” Sneddon says. “They’re getting very valuable experience right now, mainly because of all the injuries we’ve had. They’ve played minutes they just wouldn’t have under normal circumstances. In the long term, that’s going to be very beneficial to their development.
“We have guys who play roles that they never would have played and they’re doing the best job that they can. I’m really proud of our team from that standpoint. They just have that never-quit attitude and they’re trying their hardest every day, and for that I’m very proud.
“But again, I feel for the seniors. I would have hoped for a much better final year and as a coach that’s certainly disappointing. I have nobody to point the finger at other than myself.”
If Sebastian Stålberg (11-17–28) returns for his senior year next season, Vermont’s first line will rank with the best of them as freshmen Kyle Reynolds (10-11–21) and Colin Markison (5-7–12) will benefit from the added experience and maturity.
“Reynolds and Markison have played exceptionally well,” Sneddon says. “They have a lot of pressure on them right now with guys like [Connor] Brickley, [Chris] McCarthy and [Matt] Marshall out for substantial time.
“It’s focused a lot of scoring on those young guys and they’ve answered. They’ve both been some of the best players on our team, in the second half in particular.
“But the key to that has been the play of Stålberg, not only his consistency but also his ability to take two young guys under his wing and really help them mature as college hockey players.
“Sebastian has taken the biggest step in maturity on and off the ice and we’re certainly hopeful that he’s back next year. We think he will be back next year. He could be in a big leadership role because of the experience he’s gone through this year, really helping these players as well as himself on the ice.”
MacKenzie and Nick Bruneteau have anchored the blue line, providing strength both in the offensive and defensive zones.
“Those two play over 30 minutes a night for us,” Sneddon says. “Those two have been a real bright spot. Drew MacKenzie is one of the top Hockey East scorers on the defensive side; he just continues to get better and better. We’ll lose Drew to graduation, but the play of Nick Bruneteau has been really encouraging to us that he’ll maybe step into the shoes of Drew MacKenzie and lead our defensive corps next season.”
• Had this not been Beanpot week, I’d have been sorely tempted to come back to Massachusetts-Lowell as a featured team even though I wrote about the River Hawks just two weeks ago (and also included them in my “three things I learned” Monday morning blog). There’s just no getting over the remarkable outhouse-to-the-penthouse transformation from last year’s 5-25-4 finish and their position now as the nation’s top winning percentage team.
Yup, that’s right: 18-7-0, .720.
Tied for second in the PairWise Rankings.
Lowell faces two tough challenges at home this week — Merrimack on Friday and Maine on Saturday —
but is there anyone out there who still doubts that this team is for real?
• I’ve been critical of Maine’s goaltending in past columns, contending that you can’t win championships with netminders recording sub-.900 save percentages. Dan Sullivan took most of that flack, deservedly so in my mind because it seemed that every time I watched him play, he was getting the hook.
Well, if the last two weeks are any indication of things to come down the stretch, then I was wrong. (Folks, please don’t let Mrs. H know that the phrase you just read is in my vocabulary.) Two weeks ago, he led the Black Bears to an impressive sweep over red-hot Boston University, stopping 61 of 64 shots.
We’ll give him a mulligan for allowing three goals on 11 shots by Alabama-Huntsville this past weekend since it’s tough on any goalie to stay sharp in a game in which he only sees 11 shots. He also came back the following night and stopped all 20 for his first shutout of the year.
Sullivan is no longer a sub-.900 save percentage goalie. He’s risen to .903 and as they say in the biz, he’s trending higher.
The jury is still out on Sullivan as a championship netminder, but that’s a marked improvement from last season and earlier this year when a guilty verdict seemed clear.
Best of the Beanpot quotes
Northeastern coach Jim Madigan pulled no punches regarding his team’s 7-1 debacle against BC.
“They outplayed us, they outcoached us, they wanted it more than us,” he said, just getting warmed up. “They were much more hungry. They were stronger on pucks. Right from the get-go, they just took it to us and we just couldn’t get it going.
“They played the game fast and we just didn’t play to their tempo at all. We got schooled today. Bad.
“We were sloppy in our own zone, sloppy in front, sloppy on the power play. It was like boys against men. We just laid an egg tonight.”
Boston University goaltender Kieran Millan provided an amusing deadpan comment on one of his tougher saves.
“Typical breakaway short-handed,” he said. “Seems to happen pretty often.”
Thanks for the correction
Thanks to Robert Keohan, who caught an error in my last column two weeks ago. He noted that Merrimack had gone into overtime nine times, not seven. I’d actually understated my case. (I’m not sure how the error happened, whether I couldn’t read my scribbled notes or what.)
We fixed the error so most of you read the correct statistic. There wasn’t, however, a way to give Robert his just due without interrupting the flow of the text.
So he’s getting his just due now. Thanks!
Cracking the Ice
It’s been gratifying to hear from so many readers who’ve enjoyed my novel, from radio broadcasters to journalists and from friends at the day job to posters on the Beanpot live blog. It puts a big smile on my face.
As for the rest of you? Hey, get with the program! (Wink, wink.)
“To say I couldn’t put it down doesn’t say enough. A must read for every adult and young adult alike.” — Pete Webster, UNH Hockey Radio Network
“This is a terrific book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a great story, hockey fan or not.” — Dan Hannigan, Maine Hockey Radio Network
“Cracking the Ice scores the literary equivalent of a hat-trick: funny, harrowing and finally, heartfelt. This book is a winner.” — Greg Neri, author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor book
USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.