Boston College gives plenty of reasons why it’s the team to beat

The emergence of Kevin Hayes as a power forward has made Boston College’s top line nearly unstoppable (photo: Melissa Wade).

I know, I know. My final column before undergoing open-heart surgery was supposed to be two weeks ago. I even got all maudlin at one point, yet here I am poking my ugly head back out from under a rock.

Well, as it turns out, there are a limited number of slots for my operation because the surgeon must allocate the entire day for me, and as a result, my surgery date isn’t until Feb. 6.

So I’ll be attempting to entertain and inform you this week and the next, and then Jim Connelly will be on his own while I recuperate.

The delay to Feb. 6 means that the first night of the Beanpot will be my final game for a while, but I will be back for the Worcester regional and the Frozen Four. Anything earlier than that would be speculation.

If you’re so inclined, you can follow my progress here.

Since we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the good stuff.

Why Boston College is the team to beat

Not just for the regular season crown. But the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments as well (with the caveat that I haven’t seen Minnesota or a couple of the other leading national teams).

Of course, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to predict great things for a program that has won three of the last six national championships and appeared in five of the last eight title games.

But going into this season, Massachusetts-Lowell appeared to be a slight favorite after advancing to the 2013 Frozen Four and then returning almost its entire cast. And with six other Hockey East teams in the top 20, there’s plenty of competition.

That said, here’s why I feel BC has all the pieces to the puzzle.

In Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold, the Eagles feature a top line no one else can match. (The trio combined for five goals in the Eagles’ 7-2 rout of Maine.) Gaudreau and Hayes rank one-two in the country in scoring; Arnold is tied for fourth. In the 10 games since they were put together on Dec. 6, they’ve combined for 24 goals and 35 assists (59 points) with a plus-45 plus-minus rating.

Yes, that’s right: Twenty-four goals in 10 games. That’s averaging almost two-and-a-half goals per game, more than several Hockey East teams.

Anyone who’s been paying any attention at all knows about Gaudreau, almost certainly the most dynamic player in the country. And Arnold has been a double-digit goal scorer since his freshman year.

It’s the emergence of Hayes that has made the line nearly unstoppable. At times last weekend, he appeared to be a man among boys. At 6-foot-4, he offers a Zdeno Chara-like wingspan advantage over opponents while possessing skill uncommon to a man his size. He’s playing with a consistent intensity that wasn’t always there in his first three years. With 17 goals this season, he has tied his previous three-year total.

“I’m playing more of a power forward type of game, and I’m also playing with two of the best guys in the country,” Hayes said after recording a hat trick last Saturday. “[Gaudreau] is the best offensive guy and Bill Arnold is the best two-way player in the country, easily. Pretty much anyone can play with those guys.”

After BC coach Jerry York offered his assent, Hayes added, “I think Coach could score some goals with them.”

(Now there’s a shot into the upper right corner!)

Gaudreau added his praise: “He’s extremely skilled. He puts the puck right on your tape when you’re not expecting it. He’s a huge power forward down low.

“He’s had a breakout season this year, and it’s really good to see how well he’s doing. He’s a great guy off the ice, a great teammate, a great player so it’s great to see how successful he’s become.”

At the same time that York put the Gaudreau-Hayes-Arnold line together, he also combined freshmen Adam Gilmour and Chris Calnan with sophomore Brendan Silk on a lower line. Gilmour scored two goals and added an assist last Friday night, bringing the unit’s total to five goals over their nine games together. Gilmour added a power-play goal in Tuesday’s win over Merrimack.

Not bad for a third or fourth line that also includes 6-2 or 6-3 size all around.

“We’re all big-body guys,” Gilmour said after his two-goal night. “Chris and Brendan are great wingers. They fly down [the ice], they hit, they forecheck really well.

“Games when the [offensive] bounces don’t go that well, we’re looked to just be a good line on the ice, make sure that we’re responsible defensively, contribute offensively when we can, work hard and hopefully make some plays because of it.”

With two other freshmen, Ryan Fitzgerald and Austin Cangelosi, fitting in perfectly alongside Patrick Brown on the second line, scoring 21 and 18 points, respectively, York has the kind of depth he needs to keep the Big Line together.

“When we decided to put [Gaudreau, Hayes and Arnold] together, I had to feel comfortable that the other lines could create some offense and play solid defense,” York said. “Early in the season, I wasn’t sure of that.

“We’ve broken in four freshman forwards. Their development let me put the three big kids together.

“[Gaudreau, Hayes and Arnold] have a chance to be really one of the top lines at BC in decades.”

The end result is the nation’s No. 1 offense with no team even close. The Eagles are averaging 4.54 goals per game. At No. 2, Minnesota averages 3.82.

The Eagles have broken in three freshman defensemen — Steve Santini, Scott Savage and Ian McCoshen — and all three have progressed.

Brian Billett had some shaky moments in goal on Friday night, but Thatcher Demko looked good one night later. He wasn’t tested to a great extent, but he looked strong overall and was stunning in a two-on-none robbery.

After missing time in the first half to injury and the World Junior Championship, Demko could emerge to be a bigger factor down the stretch.

Goaltending and defense will be the keys to watch since the offense and special teams are difference makers. BC’s penalty kill (90.4 percent) leads the country, and its power play (20.4 percent) is no weakling.

Put it all together and the rest of Hockey East (and the country) has its work cut out for it.

Merrimack is last in Hockey East in scoring but has seen some positive developments from its power play (photo: Melissa Wade).

A hot team in last place?

What team is in last place, but as of last weekend had suffered only two losses in its last seven games, taking three of four points from Boston University, tying No. 7 Providence and splitting with both No. 13 Clarkson and No. 4 Quinnipiac?

The answer: Merrimack.

“When we’re healthy and we’re playing a certain way, I think we can beat anyone,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said prior to Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to BC.

The Warriors also have a slight advantage in that six of their remaining 11 games will be played at home, where they’ve historically been a tough opponent.

That said, Dennehy was none too happy with some of his team after Friday night’s loss at Quinnipiac, saying that some of his players were “satisfied just to play Division I hockey” and that when Quinnipiac turned it on, “we had some guys that just wilted.”

Tough love, Dennehy-style.

“We’re in our third stage of development here,” Dennehy said. “Our first one when we got here was trying to get better player by player. Then we got to the point where we were an elite-level team, and we could play it any way you want to play it. We did pretty well with the likes of Stephane Da Costa, Joe Cannata, Karl Stollery, Chris Barton and on and on.

“We got a little bit away from the blue-collar mentality because we were a little more skilled. But we’ve had a tough time getting back to that blue-collar mold. We’ve battled with this group for the last 18 months just trying to get them to play as hard as they need to play. We do it at times but then get away from it.

“I was very happy after the BU weekend that we had started to learn and really embrace that identity. It was with us for a while and then disappeared during the second period of the first Quinnipiac game. But I think Saturday’s win was probably the most complete game that we played all year long. We had all 20 guys for the most part, and we played hard for the full 60.

“[But] it took me having to jump up and down and sing and dance to get these guys to play that way. It’s got to come from within, and that’s really where we’re trying to go.”

Merrimack still ranks last in the league in scoring, averaging exactly two goals per game. But the Warriors have elevated their overall power-play percentage to 15.2 percent, going 6-of-22 (27.2 percent) since the holiday break.

“Goal scoring really starts and ends with the power play,” Dennehy said. “Look at teams like ours in the league and look at their power-play production. They may not score a lot of goals, but they’re very productive on the power play. In the second half, our power play has been really good. There’s only one game that we haven’t scored a power-play goal.

“When you score, than all of a sudden you’re leading. For a team like ours, we’re even more dangerous once we have the lead. As long as we play the way we need to play, it lends itself to more opportunities because teams have to extend themselves a little bit.”

At the other end, Rasmus Tirronen (2.16 GAA, .920 save percentage) has seized control of the starting job and been a difference-maker.

“He’s played really well of late,” Dennehy said. “We think goaltending can be a strength of ours; we also think goaltending needs to be a strength of ours.

“You look around at the best teams in the league. Their most valuable player is their goaltender. You want to start with Providence [Jon Gillies]; you want to talk about Lowell [Connor Hellebuyck]; you can even argue Northeastern despite all the goals they score. They were outshot 48-19 last weekend and won because Clay Witt put on a show.

“I know one team in our league averages about 4 or 5 goals a game — [Boston College] — but there aren’t too many teams doing that. You need your goalie to be one of the best players on the ice. Over the last six or seven games, ours has.”

Looking forward, Dennehy is focusing on health and continued improvement.

“You need to keep getting better,” he said. “The teams that go the farthest at the end of the year play their best hockey at the end.

“I know some of our fans hate for me to say it, but with the current playoff format being what it is, you can win three games at the end of the year and make your year.

“One of our goals — to make the playoffs — was eliminated before the season starts. So we just want to make sure that we’re healthy and we’re working toward [those three games].”

A video review question

A loyal reader, Tom Walsh, wrote to ask about a play in the Lowell-Boston University game last Saturday. In the second period, Lowell’s Christian Folin hit Ahti Oksanen, causing an injury. There was no penalty call on the ice. During the injury stoppage, the referee stepped into the video booth to review the play, and then called a major kneeing penalty on Folin.

Walsh asked how that could have happened since he didn’t think penalty calls were subject to video review.

As it turns out, my partner in column-writing crime, Jim Connelly, was at the game. In the postgame news conference, Lowell coach Norm Bazin relayed the explanation he was given by the referee.

The referees weren’t reviewing the penalty, they were reviewing which player was guilty of the kneeing infraction. That is allowable under NCAA Rule 95 (Video Review).

When the foul occurred, neither referee put his hand up and the whistle was to attend to an injured player. However, it is possible that a linesman advised of the penalty but told the referees that he didn’t know the identity of the player. Thus, it would be reviewable to find out which player should be penalized.

Interesting question, Tom.

And finally, not that it has anything to do with anything, but …

Bad news first.

Laptop problems prevented me from getting the electronic version of “Cracking the Ice” online. I hope to correct that in the next week or two.

The good news is that Pentucket Publishing released my latest novel, “Body Check,” a hockey romance, just before the holidays and it’s proving to be a very popular item indeed. Published under the name D.H. Hendrickson, this novel is definitely R-rated for the spicy you-know-what scenes. Here’s a description.

Sportswriter Olivia Turnbull covers the Blades, Boston’s professional hockey team. She’d never break the taboo against dating one of the players. The temptation never even crosses her mind.

Until, that is, the Blades trade for Chad Finnegan. She and Chad enjoyed a torrid love affair during their college days and when he arrives, one look dooms them both.

Their love breaks all the rules, but the forbidden fruit tastes too sweet until they learn that it could cost them everything.

Body Check provides an insider’s view of newspapers, sports writing, and hockey, but most of all, it tells a captivating tale of star-crossed lovers.

Available on KindleNOOK, Kobo, Smashwords, and other formats. $5.99

As always, you can follow my fiction writing news on
my website.