The grunt work is done for these Terriers, and it was done well. After their businesslike disposal of UMass-Amherst on Jack Parker’s 61st birthday, the third-ranked Icedogs are done with home games and sub-.500 teams. It is now time to put up or shut up. To win championships or go home.
And we know what this team can do.
After starting 5-7-2, these Terriers have astoundingly lost just twice in 22 games behind the return of David Van der Gulik, the return of goal-scoring to this end of Commonwealth Avenue and the solidifying of a defensive corps. These Terriers skate well and pass crisply, doing both with a swagger. They lock down opponents defensively and let John Curry do what the former third-string walk-on does. They finish strong; the third period is usually their best.
But what must they do better? From here on out, it is time to produce and to win championships. Playoff hockey is a different animal, and it’s an animal that has killed the Terriers quickly in recent years. And this year’s team, which will likely be the top seed each of the next two weekends, seems intent on resurrecting the program back to the top of the nation at the right time of year.
As UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon said Saturday, the Terriers “do a lot of things well.” But there are some things they could do better. The next two weekends, they’ll have to do these things better than whoever they’re playing.
Power Play Success. From this point on, for whatever reason, special teams become far more important than they are all year. And in the end, the Terriers’ numbers haven’t been that good: 16.4 percent on the power play, good for only sixth in Hockey East, behind three teams whose seasons are already over. Their penalty kill is equally mediocre.
Friday night against UMass, BU’s power play looked uncoordinated and out of whack for most of the game. But when it came down to it, with a one-goal lead in the third period, John Laliberte sealed the deal. Laliberte’s third-period snipe in the same situation Saturday was even better, and culminated a quick, efficient series of passes that circled the zone and broke the Minutemen’s back after only 18 seconds of power play time.
“You want your power play to get goals when you need it, and the last two nights there have been key goals at key times,” Laliberte said. “That’s what you need to win big games.”
They will need a killer instinct all game, every game with the man advantage to ensure success in the coming weeks against teams like the University of Maine (22 percent), Michigan State University (19 percent) and, of course, probably the nation’s best power play at the University of Minnesota (23.2 percent).
“We’re just starting to not be robots on the power play,” said sophomore center Pete MacArthur. “It makes it very difficult for penalty killers to defend you when they don’t know what you’re going to do every time. Those were two opportunistic goals by Libs and we really need to get the power play going in the playoffs. Special teams is what wins the games for you.”
Faceoffs. What almost lost the Beanpot first-round game for the Terriers this year was defensive zone faceoffs. Harvard University won 43 draws to BU’s 29 in that game and seemed to win them all down the stretch, making it a one-goal game off the faceoff and nearly tying it off an ensuing draw.
Brad Zancanaro is the only reliable center in the circle, where it was again ugly for the Terriers for stretches against UMass. BU has only won 47 percent of its faceoffs all year, which seems pretty close to 50 percent — until you consider that opponents have won 137 more faceoffs than the Icedogs.
John Curry is an outstanding goaltender, and the Terriers are stingy in their own end defensively. But if BU reverts back into a rut on faceoffs, those things might not matter.
Scoring Depth. BU’s four forward lines, since coming together in early January (and continuing intact, save for a couple injuries), have brought continuity to an efficient forecheck and a much-improved scoring attack. The fourth line has its role, and does it well while also generating chances at times. Ryan Weston and Brian McGuirk know how to hit people, and John McCarthy is as smart defensively as they come.
The other three lines, meanwhile, have each done their share of scoring on the recent run. The Red Line carried the load with all four goals Friday, and after a wake-up call from Parker, the electric White Line picked it up Saturday.
But where have the freshmen been? Neither Jason Lawrence nor Chris Higgins has a point since the Beanpot, and Yip’s few assists have come from his role on the power play. The trio was playing so well in January and early February that they were outscoring BU’s top line and earning rave reviews from the Terriers’ captains.
That has stopped, and it will need to start again. Sure, they are freshmen, but they have a full season under their belt and have proved what they can do in big games. Now they must do it. Three steady lines of scoring will be something many teams can’t answer. Both Boston College and the University of New Hampshire really only have one scoring line. Most teams don’t have the defense to run out there against a relentless attack of smooth passing and creative offense. The freshmen’s contributions could very well be the key to how far BU goes.
And how far will that be?
“They’re certainly one of the top teams in the country,” Cahoon said Saturday. “We’ve seen them rise to the occasion whenever they’ve needed to, so they have a great mentality. … It’s hard to measure the magnitude of that mentality.”
This team is alert and ready, looking ahead with a confident — but not overconfident — swagger. These are exciting times — for the players, for the fans. There are more ingredients in place at Agganis than have been seen in quite awhile.
Add a couple more, and they could be about to cook up something better tasting than just beans.