Boston College came into this season with high expectations all around. Hockey East coaches unanimously picked the Eagles to finish first in the league. They were tops in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Northeastern coach Greg Cronin even suggested that BC could win 40 games, which would be close to an undefeated season.
All of which made perfect sense. The Eagles were coming off a national championship season in which they steamrolled Miami and Wisconsin in the Frozen Four, winning 7-1 and 5-0.
Unlike most other title-winning teams, BC suffered no mass exodus of players, losing only forwards Ben Smith, Matt Price and Matt Lombardi along with defenseman Carl Sneep. All four filled important roles but as a whole constitute less than the usual attrition experienced by any team, much less the national champions.
Hence, the almost-through-the-roof expectations.
Which so far the Eagles are living up to. They defeated Northeastern, 2-0, to launch their Hockey East schedule successfully, then traveled to Denver where they put a hurting on the sixth-ranked Pioneers, 6-2 and 3-0.
“I think [the expectations] come with coaching at BC,” coach Jerry York says. “We learn to deal with that. Our focus is not the outside voices but what’s going on in our locker room. We’re trying to stay very focused on just trying to improve every day. When we come to the rink, we want to make an improvement in our team that day.
“The outside voices — the preseason predictions, the rankings — [are there], but we all know it’s October. We’re not considering the RPI and all that. That’s for March and April.
“I think we’ve done a good job maintaining our focus. The leaders have been outstanding in dealing with that.”
The last two seasons, Hockey East has watched its defending national champions stumble through so-so follow-up campaigns. After its 2008 title, BC finished .500 in the league and 18-14-5 overall. Last year, Boston University suffered a similar fate, one game over .500 both within Hockey East and overall.
Not even close to defending their titles.
“Part of it is that it’s just hard to have that one exceptional year where you win a trophy,” York says. “It’s a hard process because there are other good teams and other good programs.
“Then you lose significant players. After ’08, we lost Mike Brennan, such a strong leader and an outstanding player for us, and Nathan Gerbe turned pro. There are always significant loses that affect your club. It’s hard to win championships, so I can see why it’s so difficult to repeat.”
This past weekend showed why it may be difficult to repeat, but BC has got an excellent shot at it. The Eagles beat a very strong Denver team with offense on Friday and defense on Saturday.
“We were very excited and proud of the efforts we had from our team,” York says. “We had outstanding goaltending both nights, Johnny [Muse] on Friday and Parker [Milner] on Saturday. It took goals off the scoreboard for Denver. Some of the saves were outstanding. The goaltending was a key and our penalty killing was very, very sharp.”
Very sharp, indeed. Playing a top-10 team, BC finished the weekend up a goal while down a man. The Eagles killed all 17 penalties and scored a short-handed goal.
“Those were the pluses,” York says. “The minuses were that we took way too many penalties. It wasn’t that we got homered — [sent to the box by ‘homer’ referees] — we took unnecessary penalties. We relied on our PK to be able to sweep the series. Our penalties have to be cut back.”
The depth of this team should keep it going when injuries hit. Not only are both goaltenders playing at the top of their games, so are the forwards and defensemen. Just three games into the season, seven players have scored goals with another four assisting.
“I think we’re spread pretty well through the lineup,” York says. “We’ve got four lines that are mixed and matched a little bit, but they’re all capable of playing good defense and also scoring goals. We don’t necessarily have a checking line this year, but we don’t have a line that we’re afraid to put out against the top line, either. We’ve got good distribution among our 12 forwards that play regularly for us.”
As for the defensemen? Two shutouts in three games, with two goals scored in the other.
There’s are months and months left of hockey to be played before this year’s NCAA tournament. But don’t bet against the Eagles winning a third national championship in four years.
Against the rest, redux
Monday’s blog discussed both the outbreak of ties and Hockey East’s lackluster showing outside the league, highlighted by four ties in five games against Atlantic Hockey teams. Here’s York’s take:
“It’s a real slow start for our league as a whole,” he says. “That’s a concern to all of us in the league.
“We also understand it’s early in the year. It’s October. Now it’s up to all the coaches and players in Hockey East to get better because we want the league to send four teams to the NCAA tournament.
“Certainly the start has put us behind the eight ball. We’ve got to get better in our non-conference games.”