Tuesday night was a night for the ages in the United States as the U.S. Under-20 team upset its rival to the north, Canada, for World Junior gold.
Certainly there was impact from Hockey East in the game as Northeastern’s Devon Levi entered riding an historic streak in goal for Team Canada and former Boston University forward Trevor Zegras skated through the tournament at a wild clip, eventually finishing with a point total that matched the largest ever for a U.S. player.
But there was one team that was loaded with great storylines on both sides of the puck: Boston College.
The Eagles sent four players to the tournament, three for the Americans and talented sophomore Alex Newhook skating for Canada.
The three Americans were major difference makers in Tuesday’s title game. Spencer Knight, the often maligned goaltender at World Juniors after a less-than-optimal tournament a year ago and a horrid start to game one, was the ultimate hero pitching a 34-save shutout.
Defenseman Drew Helleson setup former Wisconsin star Alex Turcotte for a first-period tally that ended up the game-winner. And BC forward Matt Boldy, not appearing on the scoresheet on Tuesday, was a major cog in the U.S. offense as they advanced to the gold medal game.
Needless to say, Eagles coach Jerry York was attached to every moment of the tournament, particularly Tuesday’s final.
“It was past my bedtime, but it was an outstanding hockey game,” said the 75-year-old veteran bench boss. “I’m a U.S. citizen who grew up in Boston, so my allegiances were with the U.S. “But I wanted Alex [Newhook] to play very well, too.
“It was entertaining to watch. I more sat back and enjoyed the theater.”
When talking about Knight, York didn’t even address the four goals he allowed in the tournament opener against Russia before being pulled from the game. Instead, he drew comparisons to the goaltender he’s seen play over parts of two seasons at BC, the one that finished the tournament with three shutouts, a feat never accomplished in the tournament by a U.S. keeper.
“We’ve watched it now for a year and a half,” York said. “He’s a terrific goaltender and an unbelievable competitor. [His play at World Juniors] was nothing we haven’t seen in Hockey East.
“There are great accolades coming from a lot of different people. I know his teammates appreciated what he brought to them. They’ll probably root against him now that they start to play against him. But it’s a great performance and he’s had a lot of those.”
For both Boldy and Newhook, despite being on opposite sides, both players went through a similar heartbreaking tale at this tournament a year ago when each was one of the final cuts of their respective teams prior to the tournament’s start.
York talked about something he did as a coach to help the players through that, a move that is paying dividends in both international and college hockey.
“When it happened last year, we had [former Eagle standout] Johnny Gaudreau talk to both players,” said York. “He had gone through something similar being cut from the team and was really disappointed but came back and had a great rest of his freshman year.
“Of course, he came back and was a star in the World Juniors the year after. That helped both Alex and Matt. They tried hard and were deemed not ready for last year, but what a great addition both were to the team this year.
“Sometimes a little adversity isn’t bad for you and they used it and came back and worked hard.”
As Boston College takes on New Hampshire this upcoming weekend, York is still unclear the status of whether each returning player can play.
During this age of COVID, either negative testing or quarantine would be necessary to get this quartet back in the lineup. But Boston College did everything it could to help, sending a private plane to a local airport in Edmonton that flew non-stop to Hanscom Air Field in Bedford, Mass., helping alleviate any mass exposure for these players.
The biggest question of availability this weekend will likely be Knight. With goaltender Jack Moffat sidelined with a broken finger, York has dipped into the Eagles club hockey team for a backup. But if Knight can play, York says he will.
“We’ll sit down with Spencer and see how he’s playing,” York said. “But if he’s eligible to play and wants to play, he’ll be in the net.”
UConn’s back end strength needs offensive support, but threatens to be dangerous
(Editor’s Note: After this story was filed, UConn announced a pause on team activities due to COVID cases and protocol.)
Anyone who has had the chance to watched Connecticut play this season understands that this could be one of the most improved defensive teams in college hockey.
A season ago, UConn allowed an average of 3.12 goals per game, a paltry 46th of 60 nationwide and ahead of only Merrimack in Hockey East.
This season, the Huskies have cut more than a half-goal per game off that number and at 2.56 goals per game rank 18th out of 50, behind only Boston College, New Hampshire and UMass in Hockey East.
The answer to what has improved isn’t a simple one, as it involves almost every aspect of the Huskies game.
“I think it would be fair to say it’s a combination,” said UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh when asked about his back end. “[Goaltender] Tomas [Vomacka] has been very solid all year long. Defensively as a team, we’ve been pretty solid protecting the in the house, protecting in the grade A scoring areas.
“And I think it’s team defense too. It’s not giving up a lot of transitions, not giving up a lot of 3-on-2s or 2-on-1s. So a lot of the credit go to the forwards and their back pressure.”
Unfortunately for Cavanaugh and his crew, he can’t say the same about offensive improvement. The Huskies are averaging just 1.89 goals per game, 44th in the country.
On area that could help that is the power play. Over the last two games, UConn scored just once with the man advantage which is clicking at just 7.1 percent. But Cavanaugh has seen a lot of improvement which he hopes translates to pucks in the net.
“Our last game, I thought our power play was pretty good and that’s why we scored a goal,” said “But previously, it was something we spoke about. We were getting one good chance and it was done. That’s not what makes a good power play.
“You’ve got to be able to get that chance, retrieve it and kick it back out. It’s the multiple shifts on a power play that make you dangerous and eventually get you scoring goals.”
Getting closer to a sense of normalcy?
In this strange COVID-influenced season, Hockey East has had an immeasurable number of frustrating hiccups.
Last weekend, the league might have felt like some normalcy returned to the men’s side. It’s schedule as of last Tuesday called for nine games to be played. And by Monday evening, all nine games took place as scheduled.
And since then, though edits were made to the schedule in an effort to help teams that have had a lot of games postponed to date, as of the time of writing, it appears this upcoming weekend will be the most robust with all 11 teams scheduled to play between Wednesday, January 6 and Sunday, January 10.
While the starts and stops have been frustrating, no doubt, for all involved, UConn’s Cavanaugh said this is something you have to find a way to take in stride.
“Our kids have become numb to it,” admitted Cavanaugh. “You learn to control what you can control and you accept what’s thrown at you. That’s the schedule we’re going to play. That’s the only way you can go about it. Otherwise you will drive yourself mad.”
Hockey East gold medal roll call
Mentioned at the top were some of the players involved in the U.S. World Junior goal medal (and Canada’s silver medal). Here, though, is a full rundown of players and coaches with Hockey East ties:
Matt Boldy (gold)
Drew Helleson (gold)
Spencer Knight (gold)
Alex Newhook (silver)
Trevor Zegras^ (gold)
Sam Colangelo (gold)
Devon Levi (silver)
Brett Berard (gold)
Patrick Moynihan (gold)
Nate Leaman, head coach (gold)
Theresa Feaster, video coach (gold)
^ Zegras signed an NHL contract at the conclusion of last season.