The old saying is that the best defense is a good offense. That canard was put to the test as Boston College and New Hampshire faced off with the Hockey East regular-season title on the line.
Exhibit A for the defense was Boston College. The Eagles led Hockey East by allowing only 1.80 goals per game, a figure topped nationally only by Cornell.
The corresponding exhibit for the offense was New Hampshire. The Wildcats led Hockey East by scoring 4.19 goals per game, a figure topped nationally only by Michigan.
The study in contrasts extended to special teams as well where UNH boasted the league’s second-best power play (23.8 percent) and BC countered with its best penalty kill (88.6 percent).
Frick and Frack. Yin and yang. You say goodbye, I say hello.
Of course, the two national powerhouses were far from one-dimensional stereotypes. If you’re seventh-ranked UNH, your coach, Dick Umile, still preaches defense first and despite some potholes in the road you still had the league’s fifth-ranked team defense at 2.72 goals against per game.
And if you’re fifth-ranked BC, your coach, Jerry York, still wants a mix of sniping — in the Eagles’ case, third in the league with a 3.17 average — to go with the stifling defense.
Even so, the contrasts were striking. Both teams might be striving for impeccable defense and explosive scoring, but the strengths of the two teams lay at polar opposites.
Would the best defense be a good offense? Or would the best offense be a good defense? The irresistible force meets the immovable object.
The mutual respect was certainly there.
“I like how UNH plays the game,” said BC captain Ryan Shannon. “They play hockey. It’s not football on ice. It’s up-tempo.”
Offering counterpoint was Umile, saying, “They don’t ever get credit for the way they play defensively. Jerry’s teams always do that.”
The clash of contrasts began with one irony after another. A careless BC turnover in the slot gave Jacob Micflikier and Justin Aikins a golden opportunity barely more than a minute into the game. The high-octane Wildcat power-play surrendered a two-on-one midway through the period. For the most part, though, grade A opportunities were in very short supply.
“We were feeling each other out a little bit,” Shannon said. “When you play a team like them that is so [high] powered offensively, if you make too aggressive a step they get a break and they get a goal. So we were feeling each other out and jumped when we could.”
As it turned out, midway through the third period BC led, 3-1, on the back of two power-play goals and the game’s lone even-strength tally. The Eagles were poised to climb within one point in the standings of first-place New Hampshire. Against a team with that kind of explosive firepower, however, a two-goal lead is hardly safe.
“Only two shots and we’d be back in the game,” Preston Callander said. “We have a lot of confidence in our offense. We know that if we take care of our end and help whichever goalie is in net, the offense is going to come. We have a lot of talent up front and a lot of guys who can score as long as we work hard.”
A power-play goal at 11:15 got UNH within striking distance, 3-2, but the clock ticked down to two minutes and BC had still held the Wildcats off the scoreboard while at even strength. Then came a deflection, fortunate for UNH and disastrous for BC, to create a two-on-one for Callander and Sean Collins and the Wildcats did what powerhouse offenses are supposed to do: bury the key opportunity.
“It was a tough bounce for us as a team,” BC coach Jerry York said. “I thought we defended very well. It just hit [Ryan Murphy’s] stick and bounced and they got a quick two-on-one.
“[Goaltender] Matti [Kaltiainen] had [Collins] almost stoned… He didn’t have much to shoot at, but he’s a proven goalscorer and he found a way.”
As gifted snipers like Collins so often do.
At the end of an overtime that could have easily seen either team emerge with a victory, New Hampshire walked away with a come-from-behind, road tie that felt like a win. The Wildcats remained in the driver’s seat to win Hockey East; BC looked at the unenviable task of needing to win the rematch at UNH, a feat last accomplished on Nov. 7, 1997.
For this night at least, the best defense — defense of first place in Hockey East — was indeed a good, no, a great offense.