Boston College has spent November ranked as the country’s top team for the first time in the program’s history. Why? There are many reasons, and most of them involve speed and offense.
The Eagles’ best-known player is junior forward, captain, and U.S. Olympian Alex Carpenter. Before her Olympic stint last year, Carpenter had a reputation as a player with great hands and a head for the game, but she was not considered to be a fast skater. Once on Team USA, it was hard to find any complaint with her speed, so it may be that it was just when at BC and surrounded by players like Haley Skarupa, Emily Field, and Dana Trivigno that she didn’t seem fast.
With 26 points in her 10 games played, Carpenter leads the nation in scoring. Eight of the nine forwards on the top three lines for Boston College have reached double digits in points already. Andie Anastos, last year’s Rookie of the Year in Hockey East, is the only one who has not; she has nine points. Simply, coach Katie King Crowley has more than a few options up front.
The focus of this story, however, is on the team’s defensemen. That means we’ll just start at a different point before we end up talking about speed and offense.
“I do think we have great forwards, but I’ve been really impressed with our defense this year,” King Crowley said. “And I think a lot of that goes to not only ‘Court,’ but Emily Pfalzer and Lexi Bender.”
“Court” is assistant coach Courtney Kennedy, who is the position coach for the team’s defensemen. When I started following women’s hockey, Kennedy was an All-American and Patty Kazmaier Top Three Finalist, who, despite playing only three years at Minnesota, ranks fourth in points and third in goals by a defenseman in the program’s history. It’s a safe bet that she’s not coaching her pupils to hang back and leave the scoring to the forwards.
Thus, it’s not surprising that Bender (5 goals – 10 assists – 15 points, 12 games) and Pfalzer (2-9-11, 10) rank first and second in the nation in scoring average for defensemen.
Pfalzer was one of five Eagles to miss a couple games due to the Four Nations Cup, her first appearance on the senior U.S. national team.
“I think she’s been great,” King Crowley said. “Two years ago at the end of the year she got hurt and then had a surgery, so the beginning of last year, I think she was working herself back into it, but after the new year, I thought she really kind of exploded for us. I would say in our last game last year against Clarkson, she was one of the best players on the ice. That’s the kind of player that she is and dynamic player that she is when she’s fully healthy. Not only has she done it for us on the ice, but she’s also been a tremendous leader for our kids, off the ice and on the ice. It’s been fun to kind of watch her grow and progress.”
The kids in the line-up include three rookies on the blue line, not usually a recipe for immediate success.
“They’ve done a great job,” King Crowley said. “They all came in, and we really needed to use them right away. I think they’ve all adapted pretty well, and they’re still adapting to a certain degree. They all kind of bring different qualities.”
Megan Keller, one of those freshmen on defense, joined Pfalzer on the Four Nations Cup roster. Where many Eagles on the blue line look like they would be equally adept at dueling the Chinese and South Koreans in short track speedskating, Keller, at 5 feet, 10 inches, possesses the size coaches covet in a prototypical defenseman.
“I think she’s got a huge upside,” King Crowley said. “She’s a kid that I think is just going to continue to get better and better, learning from Emily and Lexi, and now we have [junior defenseman] Kaliya [Johnson] back. Just being able to learn from those kids that have been through a lot in their careers I think is only going to help her continue to get better. She’s going to be in the weight room more. She’s going to be working on her strength, but that’s not even an issue right now, so it’s only going to help her continue to get better. She sees the ice really well. She’s a really smart defenseman. She’s got some nice hands on her; she can dangle with some of our forwards. She’s got a lot of really, really nice tools.”
Her defensive classmates have gifts of their own.
“You talk about quickness, and Kali Flanagan has first-step quickness that I haven’t seen in too many kids,” King Crowley said. “She’s continuing to just learn the game even more than what she knows already. When I watch Toni Miano, she reminds me a lot of a kid that we had a couple of years ago, Dru Burns, with the way she’s just very, very smart. She knows the game. She sees the game really, really well, and she’s been able to show that at the college level. We’ve been fortunate that these kids have stepped right in and they don’t let nerves get to them and what not.”
Early contributions were necessary, because Johnson was injured and has only been available for the last four games.
“She’s someone that will stay at home a little more than I would say Emily and Lexi,” King Crowley said. “You know that there’s very few people that can beat her with her speed as well. And just having a little more experience back there, having another older kid back there who has been through a lot with our program, who’s been to a Frozen Four, been to the first round of the tournament last year, so she’s been through a lot as well. To have three freshmen and to have Kaliya jump into that mix with the older kids, now all of the freshmen can have someone that’s experienced to play with.”
As the only senior in the group, Pfalzer hasn’t found it necessary to do much to help the youngsters adjust.
“I think just leading them and making them comfortable,” Pfalzer said. “All three of them are very talented, and just allowing them to play their game without making mistakes.”
She has seen her own game evolve over the course of her college career.
“I think being more aware of when I can jump up into the play,” Pfalzer said. “I think maybe I’m just maturing as a player. I guess being more poised and having more confidence out there.”
Jumping into the rush is something that the Eagles do a lot from the blue line. The speed BC has up front leaves little time to react.
“You have to make the decisions very quick, but I think that also makes it more of an instinctual decision,” Bender said. “If it’s right, it’s right. You don’t have to think about whether it’s right or not.”
She and Pfalzer are often paired together, both bringing that aggressive, offensive mindset.
“There’ve definitely been times where we’ve kind of looked at each other and we’re both in the offensive end and been like, ‘Oh, gees, one of us needs to get back,'” Bender said. “But I would say we’re pretty good at reading each other, and one staying back and taking turns.”
Not that opponents would have time to notice if all of the Eagles were down below the dots attacking.
“Honestly, five days a week in practice I’m going against our forwards, and I understand that it would be so overwhelming to have that rush coming in, and then you add a couple more defensemen,” Bender said. “I would be overwhelmed.”
To date, opponents have been overwhelmed a lot. BC is averaging 5.58 goals per game, and its average goal differential of four and a half goals is greater than any other team’s scoring average. Bender is a big reason why.
“I try to sneak in places, but I’m not exactly that sneaky, so I’ll see that spot behind a forward, and then I’ll just skate as fast as I can,” she said.
“She is fast,” King Crowley said. “When she gets to full speed, man, she is fast.”
The game is full of fast players, although not to the same degree as Bender, but she also knows how to use that speed effectively.
“I think what is unique about her is she can make that jump pretty quickly, and you don’t really see her coming,” King Crowley said. “It’s like all of a sudden, she’s there.”
The Snohomish, Washington, native is honing her game so that she can make a greater impact once she arrives.
“This summer, I worked a lot on my edges,” Bender said. “I worked with a coach at home when I get on my outside edges and more the agility piece. I think that’s really paid off. Also, I took a ton of shots this summer, trying to get my shots down good, able to shoot more places.”
Bender is rapidly transforming from another quality piece for BC to someone who can be a dominant player.
“When she stays within herself and plays her game the way she can, she really can take over a game,” King Crowley. “It’s kind of been the same as with Emily; it’s been fun to watch her progress during college, and she’s only a junior. We have another year with her after this.”
Of course, the primary task of any defenseman is to defend. That may seem to be a tall order with not only youth on the blue line, but young freshman Katie Burt in goal.
“I think at first, just being aware that we had a 17 year old in net, but she’s done a great job,” Pfalzer said. “Honestly, I don’t even realize that she’s a freshman that accelerated her senior year of high school.”
Burt has settled right in, ranking in the top five in most statistical categories, and she’s seventh in save percentage. Most importantly, her record of 11-0-1 trails only the 9-0-0 mark of Quinnipiac senior Chelsea Laden.
That’s given Pfalzer and her partners plenty of time to watch the havoc that the forwards are causing.
“It’s awesome to see what they can do,” she said. “Especially like being defensemen and them being in front of us, sometimes we’ll be like, ‘Wow, those were great plays.’ For example, when we played UNH, we scored in the first maybe 30 seconds, and it was just tic-tac-toe. It’s just something that’s really cool to watch and play with.”
The one concern to date might be whether or not the Eagles have faced enough pressure from opponents to develop optimally on defense.
“Definitely in practice, every day we’re going against the best players in the country, let alone possibly the world,” Bender said. “So I think we’re definitely getting enough practice defending during the week.”
Boston College reached the Frozen Four in 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2013, but has yet to win once there. One senses that will be different in Pfalzer’s final campaign.
“I think that every game we’re going in with the same mindset that we want to be the best team and the hardest-working team,” she said. “Going into every game with that same mindset will help us to the end.”
In the meantime, they’ll all enjoy the season.
“We have a great group of kids,” King Crowley said. “They have fun every day. They’re fun to coach. That’s been a great experience for us so far, where they love the game of hockey. All of them — they love it. So it’s been a lot of fun for me and ‘Court’ to work with them every day.”