Boston College may be putting it all together at the right time

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.

It’s over.

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).

It’s over.

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.”

Quick hits

• 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

If you don’t find it at your local bookstore, get it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. If you’d like to order a personalized copy, drop me a line at [email protected].


  1. Sullivan’s save percentage is 30th nationwide.  So, not exactly a championship caliber netminder.  Maine’s team defense is t36 and this combination is going to be a problem when they stop beating up on the Vermonts and Alabamas.  Meanwhile their team offense is t3.

    The Patriots got pretty far with this imbalance – look how that ended up. Good grief.

    • Sullivan isn’t going to really turn many heads with a .903 percentage, but he’ll do enough to keep Maine in games.  Part of it is also team defense.  If the guys in front of Sully can keep the good teams from getting quality high percentage shots then Sully will be fine.  Maine has a very potent offense.  Reminds me of the UNH teams from 2007-2010.  High powered offense, capable goalies, but a soft defense that can be good but is prone to disappearing.  

      • Yeah, we’ll see whether this team has truly turned the corner or whether the Bostons were just having off weekends.  The Lowell game will be a good reality check for Maine.  I’ve seen Lowell about 8 games this year and they are very solid in all aspects of the game. Maine will likely have to play 2 HEA tourney games on the road to make it to the Garden so this weekend should help them.

      • As a UNH grad and (still) rabid Wildcat fan, I agree with your assessment of most the UNH teams from the 2000s.   They had many highly skilled, outstanding forwards of whom could be argued were right in the mix with the best in the country.  Goaltenders were solid as well during this time–Not necessarily Hobey Baker Award quality, but usually near the top in wins, save percentage, etc (Ayers, Regan, Foster).   What has been maddening to me over many, many years has been the UNH program’s ineptitude in terms of recruiting grade-A defensemen.  I can actually remember watching Rod Langway play at the old “Lively Snively” Arena back in the 70s.  Outside of one or two others since then, nothing to see here….

        • ugh i know!  i’ve been going to games since the late 90s and graduated from UNH in 2007.  So many of those teams let games get away from them because they didn’t have any solid defenders.  Though this year between Agosta, Knodel, and TvR I think the defense looks a lot stronger (or at least bigger) than in recent memory.  Between those guys and our freshman goalie, if we can develop some more scoring this year heading into next, UNH could be another great team again…

    • I was at the BC and Alabama-Huntsville games covering them, and as of right now this team in Orono is a completely different one than the team that started the season, and I wouldn’t put much stock in their national numbers as much as I would the way they are playing at the moment. There is a grittiness and work ethic that didn’t exist early this season, and it is creating a confidence level in this team that is infecting their play. To take down BC and then head into Agganis Arena in back to back weekends and come out with 8 HEA points is something that not many teams can claim as an accomplishment. It doesn’t matter how you win them as long as you win them, and I do believe that is something the Patriots used to be all about. 
      Maine’s 5 on 5 play is looking better due to the input of players on the bottom lines, and they are playing with more heart (it appears this way, at least) and with a more physical mindset — something the team seemed scared to do earlier this year.

      That being said, you are completely correct in saying there are still quite a few holes in the way they play, and quite frankly the games against BC could have been completely different if the puck bounces an eighth of an inch differently in either game, sometimes a little bit of luck is needed.

      Sullivan has consistently improved between the pipes since Whitehead gave up on the two man rotation between he and Martin Ouellette. I think, in the case of Sullivan anyways, there is something to be said about being a regular starter and knowing you will be given a chance to bounce back from a tough game and not worry as to what his status is on any given night. Sullivan’s save % would be much higher if he could get some help from his defense as they seem to have 2-4 major mental lapses each game that leave their goaltender high and dry, and when the games matter the most all it takes is one of those mistakes to throw a game in the wrong direction. 

      The one area that seems to go over looked with Maine is on the other side of their powerplay, as their penalty-killing effort is ninth in HEA and they have allowed nine short handers (the most in the conference by five freaking goals). 

      Another over-looked factor with Maine, because of the offensive number their first line is putting up, is how well do the bottom three lines perform. Up to this point in their win streak they have had numerous players outside of the combo of Abbott-Flynn-Diamond step up and contribute — which is something that the team was not getting early this year. When these players — Mangene, Shemanksy,Beattie, etc —  become involved and making plays the Black Bears are a completely different team because opponents don’t need to just shut down one line to win. This also takes the pressure off of the first line to be saviors for the whole team, allowing them to just play.

      This weekend will be a test of what type of team Maine really is at the moment as Providence doesn’t bow down or stop competing for anyone, and Lowell swept Maine in Orono last time they played. The Lowell game is of utmost importance for the Black Bears due to the Pairwise Rankings, as it is their last major point worthy game against a top three ranked opponent on the road.

  2. UVM problems can be defined in one
    word: Sneddon. I have been a UVM season ticket holder for over 30 years and
    from where I sit (and it seems from where a lot of other UVM fans sit at the Gut) I do not
    see Sneddon as the coach who can take UVM to a consistently high level.  I think the recruiting has been good, especially
    this year’s group of freshman.  But while
    the faces on the ice keep changing some things don’t.  These include power plays that don’t produce,
    anemic offense, defensive errors that always seem to end up as goals and a
    failure to have the team prepared to play. 
    Many fans just do not see coaching ability or creativity on the
    offensive side so there is extended pressure of on the defense for long periods
    of time and eventually it cracks.  He
    just does not realize that often the best defense if a good offense especially
    on a good size ice surface.  He still
    coaches like he is on the small ice of Union.

    I know in this article Sneddon is
    saying the right things about his team and players but his past behavior is one
    of a coach who is quick to criticize his players in the newspaper/TV but will
    not take any responsibility for his team’s poor performance or lack of
    preparation for games.    

    If you take a look at his coaching
    record it is just not that good.  He had
    2 solid winning years at UVM and none at Union. 
    Makes one wonder why he was even consider let alone hired.  It is time UVM and Sneddon part ways and the
    sooner the better.    

  3. As a fan of a local HEA team that’s not in the beanpot.. it’s tough to get excited when you have a pretty good idea that it’s just gonna end up being a BC/BU game. Even though it’s cool to have Monday Night HEA, they could probably boost attendance by putting it on a friday night or weekend, and maybe doing something to keep people in their seats the whole itme.

  4. The Eagles have paled this year according to the gold standard that they set for themselves and have lived by most years stretching all the way back to the ’97-’98 season.  Most teams every year lose a key player or two due to early departure, but BC losing three this year definitely hurt.

    The three issues that I’ve seen thus far are the goaltending questions, leadership, and a lack of physicality.  I think that the latter two are coming around, but all three are critical to a FF run.  Still, there is no coach out there who is better than Jerry at pulling the right levers for a stretch run.

  5. Maine’s Goaltending and defense has been suspect all season long…even when winning there are still holes come Playoffs and “IF” they make the NCAA’s…they have lived and dies on the Power-Play…if it has to come down to 5×5 scoring then Maine is just another Team…Sullivan has picked it up…but still too many juicy rebounds and the D-men turning the puck over behind and in front has to be a major concern…these mistakes happen every night and in the Playoffs/NCAA’s you pay dearly for them…to win Maine’s has to take care of there back-end.


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