Early this season, offense has been king in college hockey.
Four Hockey East players — New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher and Andrew Poturalski, Connecticut’s Max Letunov and Massachusetts’ Dennis Kravchenko — all are ahead of the pace that Boston University’s Jack Eichel was at this point a season ago (Eichel finished with a nation’s-best 71 points).
That may be what makes Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko’s early performances stand out.
Demko and the Eagles went out to Colorado College last weekend and brought home a box of Dunkin’ Donuts, back-to-back shutouts of the Tigers. Combined with a whitewashing of Wisconsin the Friday before, it’s been more than 200 minutes since Demko surrendered a goal.
“He looks so much more in control of the goal crease,” BC coach Jerry York said about Demko’s early-season success. “That’s maturity.”
That’s also a nation’s-best 0.60 GAA through five games for the junior. It’s complemented by a .972 save percentage.
And before you want to start saying BC hasn’t played any difficult opponents yet, save it. Goaltending and defense, particularly for an Eagles team where the defensive position lacks the anticipated depth, being pilfered by the NHL in June when both Noah Hanifin and Michael Matheson left early to sign pro contracts, weren’t exactly expected to be the team’s strengths coming into the year.
“We’re playing better as whole team defensively,” said York. “That’s cut down the number of shots and number of quality shots on our goaltender. Those three shutouts are indicative of how the players played in front of him.”
The defensive corps is led by captain Teddy Doherty, whose solid two-way play was overshadowed a season ago by Hanifin and Matheson. But you also have players like Steve Santini, Scott Savage and Ian McCoshen, all of whom are solid on the back end.
Back to Demko, whose success may also be linked to offseason surgery to repair tears in the labrum in both of his hips, the rubbery tissue in the hip socket that helps with flexibility. While Demko was able to play through the injury in each hip last season, he did so with recurring pain every time he had to stretch either leg. For a goaltender, that pain can have major impact.
“The recent labrum operations in both hips made him more flexible,” said York. “With pain you just can’t stretch as far. He feels great now.”
This weekend, BC will possibly face its toughest opponent when it hosts Denver for a single game Friday (the Pioneers play Boston University a night later to complete their weekend). York understands this may be the litmus test his club needs early in the season.
“Denver will be the best team we have played this year. They skate very well,” said York. “They’re very creative offensively, similar to how [coach] Jimmy [Montgomery] played the game at Maine.”
Major Junior strikes BC … again
It’s not all good news for York and the Eagles. On Wednesday morning, the team announced in a news release that highly touted freshman Jeremy Bracco has left the team. The OHL’s Kitchener Rangers later confirmed their team as his destination.
It’s hardly something new to York, or to college hockey in general. Last year, Sonny Milano broke his letter of intent to attend Boston College, changing his mind to play for the Flint Firebirds. Milano was also able to sign an NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets and play in the OHL, something he would be restricted from doing at Boston College.
Bracco will be in a similar situation, where he could sign shortly with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who drafted Bracco in June. Many at the time wondered if Bracco would even arrive in Chestnut Hill to begin the season.
This is nothing overly new to the college hockey world, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating for coaches, fans and administrators to watch some of the talented players the game is able to attract bail on their teams and education.
Irish, Duluth, fit to be tied
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson might have felt like he was looking in a mirror last Saturday night.
One night after his Irish fell behind by two goals only to rally for a 3-3 tie at home against Minnesota-Duluth, his squad let squander a two-goal lead in the rematch, resulting in yet another 3-3 stalemate.
“They were very similar games,” said Jackson.
That didn’t mean that Jackson left the weekend unhappy with taking two ties against a team then ranked No. 5.
“Duluth is a really good, experienced team,” Jackson said. “I thought we held our own. I thought we did a good job in some areas of the game.”
One area that is a true breath of fresh air for Jackson and the Irish: the power play. A season ago, the Notre Dame power play at times trudged along with an efficiency level in the teens.
Through four games, this year’s club is at 26.7 percent with the man advantage and has scored a power-play goal in each of the last three games.
(Side note: the Irish were a perfect 12-for-12 on the penalty kill and scored a short-handed goal, that after allowing four goals on six opposition power plays in the first two games of the season.)
“We’ve got two good groups [on the power play],” said Jackson. “I’ve always said that having two units who are productive is beneficial just because when one unit falters, the other unit is going. That works well to at least score a goal a game. If we can do that, it’s certainly a positive for our team because we’re going to need the power play to be a factor.”
If there is one area where Notre Dame could use a bit of improvement, it is defensively. Allowing opponents 3.75 goals per game places the Irish 47th of the 54 teams that have played games.
“You have four freshmen and sophomores playing every night [on defense] and a sophomore goaltender,” said Jackson. “The two freshman defensemen are talented offensively and we have to teach them to be better defenders.”
There lies the rub: Defensemen have to be involved in the offense in the modern college hockey game but still have a responsibility to the defensive end.
“It’s essential for us to be a good offensive team that our defensemen are part of the attack,” said Jackson. “We’ve got guys there who are smart offensive guys. We need them to be active offensively, but we need them to pick their spots. They’ve got to read the situation and know when they’re going it’s got to be a factor.
“So far it’s been a little inconsistent in that regard. But it’s early in the season and we have a chance to be really good in the second half if we continue to grow.”