WORCESTER, Mass. — What, BC worry?
When Boston College went up 3-0 in the first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game, the notion of this NCAA East Regional semifinal as up for grabs seemed pretty silly.
2014 NCAA Northeast Regional
Sure, the Eagles were a top seed, arguably featuring the best forward line in college and the Hobey Baker Award heir apparent in Johnny Gaudreau.
And yet, BC also looked to be a great team that had gone cold, playing against a pretty good team in Denver that had gone on a tear to win the inaugural NCHC playoff championship. Sounds like an intriguing matchup, doesn’t it?
And then there was the small matter of what happened the last time BC had a 13-day layoff going into a big game, as they did coming into Saturday’s action.
Starting in early December, Boston College put together a jaw-dropping unbeaten streak that ran all the way through the regular season finale, when the Eagles dropped a tough overtime loss to Notre Dame. The Eagles’ 16-1-2 record over that memorable stretch clinched the No. 1 seed in the Hockey East tournament.
However, BC also received what turned out to be a bit of a booby prize in the process. Due to a new playoff format in Hockey East this season, the top five teams were rewarded with a weekend off while teams six through 11 in the standings duked it out to see which three would earn a berth in the league quarterfinals.
Eagles coach Jerry York expressed ambivalence about the layoff immediately. For a team that had been the hottest in the country going back to December, some time off only gave them time to cool off. And after the 13-day hiatus, sure enough, BC suffered its most lopsided loss of the season — a 7-2 drubbing against Notre Dame in the first game of the best-of-three quarterfinal series.
The Fighting Irish proceeded to win that series. Suddenly, BC looked pretty mortal with a 1-3 record in its last four games. Furthermore, the loss meant that the Eagles faced another extended layoff — missing out on the Hockey East semifinals and finals while awaiting NCAA tournament play.
When the brackets were announced, there it was again — a second 13-day layoff.
“I think we played four games in 34 days,” York said. “At this stage [of the season], you go stir crazy. You want to get out and play games, and players felt the same way. It enabled us to have almost another training camp, starting with defensive zone and getting a lot more balance with our forecheck and our offense.
“Watching film, I thought we had three guys down low, and we got caught a lot — a too-aggressive kind of hockey game. We had to have a little more patience, a little more balance.”
Suffice to say that the Eagles took strides to make sure that this 13 would not be unlucky. There was plenty of time to break down and correct what had gone wrong in the ill-fated Irish series.
“Mainly what we worked on was communication on the backchecking,” senior captain Patrick Brown said. “Notre Dame did a great job hitting their game — pulling up with the forwards on the rush, getting their late D, and we were missing that. We worked on that basically all week, backtracking and conditioning.
“We did a much better job tonight. The two goals they got … pretty much a fluky tip in front on the second one, and the first one everyone was thrown off guard by it [due to tussling in the crease area between BC’s Ian McCoshen and DU’s Ty Loney]. But I think we did a great job back pressuring tonight, and we have to keep that up tomorrow.”
There is a definite irony here. The Eagles played poorly when they earned 13 days off as a reward for good performance. Saturday, they played well after 13 days off due to poor performance.
“You know, it’s just a mentality,” Brown said. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we want to play; we’re going to be rusty.’ You can’t control that. After we lost, that stunk, but we told ourselves ‘All right, we’ve got two weeks’ rest that other teams don’t have; that’s an advantage.’ That’s how we looked at it, and that how we approached practice for two weeks.”
That mentality paid off in the fateful first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game, when the first line exploded for a combined plus-9 with three goals and four assists. Before the night was over, that top line of Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold ended up at plus-15 combined.
“Guys were hungry,” Brown said. “They hadn’t scored any real goals for a while, and I think Johnny and Kevin showed us how to do it.”
“It’s not the easiest way going into the national tournament — playing so few games and having that many practices,” York said. “But it’s certainly exciting for us to be playing in the next championship game.”
If the Eagles can win that regional championship Sunday, you can bet they’ll have a clear plan for how to deal with those 10 days off before the Frozen Four.
After Saturday, concerns about a long layoff have been put to rest.