Boston College Hockey: A First Half Recap Part 1
By Quinn Kelly
Hello to the Eagles
This year’s team is certainly a far cry in terms of personnel from last year’s team. The Eagles had to say goodbye to 9 on ice contributors and 11 players from last year’s roster, 7 of whom were underclassmen. That meant bringing in a monster class of 13 freshmen, 10 of whom are seeing the ice every night. Through the first half youth has not proven to be a hindrance, though, and the baby Eags have jumped out to a 13-6-1 start. Let’s dive in and take a look at just how this year’s team is making us forget all about last year’s departures.
A Shaky Start
The Eagles season looked in rough shape after the first few games. A freshmen heavy lineup took the ice in Denver for their first collegiate game. Away from home and feeling jitters, there was a lot of pressure on the team; both on the small group of upperclassmen to gel with their new leadership role, and on the freshmen to come out and get it done immediately. This made what should have been a no problem type opener against Air Force a seriously tough game. Though they held the lead after two, the Eagles gave it away, letting a pair in in the third and letting Air Force steal one from them. The Eagles bounced back well, though, defeating the current number 2 team in the nation, Denver, at home. Six days later, though, it was back on the road for a tough test at Wisconsin. The Eagles got down three and could only muster a single goal in a losing effort to the Badgers, falling 3-1 and falling to 1-2-0 on the season. Not a great start, but one that would soon be assuaged.
The Eagles first half is certainly bolstered by their response to a tough start: a 10 game undefeated streak. Things really meshed for the Eagles in this stretch, going 9-0-1 and outscoring opponents 47-21. They picked up a marquee win over Providence and took care of some other conference foes, getting Ws against UMass Amherst, Maine (2), and UNH. The only thing that marred their streak was a pretty inexplicable tie with Merrimack. All things looked great for the Eagles, though, and they’d climbed back inside the top 5 heading into a rough set of games touting a 10-2-1 record (the first team to reach 10 wins in the nation).
A Minor Skid Before the Break
The final seven games before the winter recess had to be the toughest stretch any team had faced this year. The Eagles faced four ranked opponents, three of them away from Conte Forum. What happened is pretty simple. They lost to every ranked team they faced, mercifully spread out to be every other game, and took care of business against their unranked opponents, who, mind you, were stiff competition in their own right. After taking a beating at Harvard, losing 5-2 in their first trip to Cambridge in 3 years, the Eagles bounced back with a mid-week win at UConn. Then, on the heels of Thanksgiving break, the team suffered their only home loss to a tough Minnesota squad. A trip to Northeastern would yield success with a Michael Kim shortie giving the Eagles the win in the final minute of play, and then it was on to Madison Square Garden for a date with North Dakota.
The 24th meeting between the programs was everything it promised to be. The teams entered with an 11-11-1 split in the series, and seesawed back in forth to see who would get the upper hand. In the end, being unable to stay out of the box hurt the Eagles and they fell 4-3.
There was no time to lick their wounds, though, as they turned right around to find Northeastern again knocking on their door. BC took care of business in convincing fashion, picking up a 5-3 win. Unfortunately, there was no rest for the weary, and the Eagles had to play their 20th game in South Bend just before break. After getting up 2-0 in the first period and looking much the better team, BC let up three in the second and were held scoreless the rest of the way, falling to the Golden Domers 3-2.
There it is, the path to 13-6-1. The Eagles currently sit at #6 in the nation with the second highest win total of anyone. It was a strong first half, but there is certainly work to be done. The Eagles were in every game so far, certainly an encouraging sign. Their 5-2 loss at Harvard is the worst of the season, having three losses being by just one goal, another by two but with an empty-netter for their opponent, and a final by two naturally. Even in the Harvard game, though, the Eagles looked pretty good, only losing the game in a minute and a half stretch in which they allowed three goals. At the end of the day, this is a solid team who has positioned themselves well after the first half to be there at the very end.
Then and Now
At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of suspicion surrounding this program. The attrition rate from the team last year was so high and the Eagles would be starting so many freshman this year that there would have to be a drop off from last year, right? Looking at both of the teams’ first halves, though, this may not be entirely true. While there certainly aren’t as many jump off the page names, these teams aren’t too off from each other in terms of production. Let’s stack the two teams up side by side and see how this year’s squad fairs.
(thru 16 games)
|Hockey East Record||6-1-1||8-1-1|
|Goals Against Avg||1.6||2.5|
|PP Conv. %||17.6%||18.1%|
|Opp. PP Conv. %||10.3%||17.7%|
|Longest Undefeated Streak||13 games (12-0-1)||10 games (9-0-1)|
|Record vs Ranked Opponents||1-0-1||1-0-4|
I see a lot of parallels when I look at these two teams, and I also feel that these numbers pretty clearly show where the difference between the two teams lies. Offensively, they’re pretty similar. Last year’s team obviously had a little over a half goal advantage in goals per game, but whether you’re scoring 4.3 or 3.7 a game, you’re putting yourself in a position to win most contests. Their power plays percentages are equally mediocre, with this year’s having about a half a percentage point edge. Knowing that last year’s team turned it on in the second half and inflated that number to 21.4% on the season is really encouraging to me, though. Especially with a young group of guys, you have to learn to score 5 on 5 before you can really focus on your special teams. I expect this group to see that same rise in the second half.
Record wise, sure, last year’s team has a distinct advantage. But their pre-winter break schedule was a lot less jammed up. Outside of the fact that they had four less games to fit in first semester, their travel load was a lot lighter as well. While they spent a weekend in New York, a weekend in Colorado, and had one night trips to New Hampshire and Connecticut, this year’s team has already matched and surpassed with a weekend trip Colorado of their own, weekends in Wisconsin and Maine, and trips to Connecticut, New York (for a fan-fare laden showdown with one of the top teams in the nation at Madison Square Garden), and South Bend, Indiana. For a group that’s stuffed with freshman, that’s a lot to ask to start the year.
The competition has also simply been better. Last year, the Eagles had only faced two ranked opponents before the break, having the luxury of facing them both at home. This year, the team has already had to face five ranked opponents and only saw one of them visit the Heights, playing three of the others on their home ice and, of course, North Dakota at a neutral site. Yet another case of this year’s squad facing far tougher tests.
Despite taking 5 more losses than last year before the break, the team has only been blown out in one game. They’ve looked perfectly capable all year and have hung tight with good teams. As this team matures, expect them to get over the hump and make one goal losses to ranked teams one goal wins.
Not all of the differences can be attributed to a tougher schedule, however. There are some statistics that show that this year’s team has less skill and less discipline than last year’s. First, I point to the goals against average. Opponents were averaging nearly an entire goal less per game against the Eagles last year. While the freshman-heavy defense core is perfectly capable this year, it really wouldn’t be truthful to say that they match up with last year’s group. Last year’s defense not only featured some of the most skilled members of the roster, but the team’s leaders as well. Lost from last year’s defense are all three captains, Teddy Doherty and his assistants Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini. While Doherty didn’t play exclusively defense, that was his natural home. These were three top of the line defenders in Hockey East and while it’s hard enough to try to replace their talent with freshman, it’s impossible to replace their leadership. Move further back and look between the pipes at the stark absence left by one Thatcher Demko. Demko had one of the best seasons of all time for a collegiate goaltender, racking up 10 shutouts, a 1.87 GAA and a .935 SV%. Again, not skills or stats that you’re going to replace with a freshman. That’s not to say, though, that Joe Woll hasn’t done a fantastic job; because he has. Woll, like any freshman, just needs to develop. All signs are encouraging, as Woll is having a comparable season to Demko’s freshman campaign. The numbers are pretty spot on, with Woll losing a quarter of a goal in GAA (2.24 to 2.51) and just .002 in SV% (.919 to .917). We need to remember that Demko was splitting time with Brian Billett his freshman year, so Woll having these numbers while shouldering the tending load for the Eagles is pretty damn impressive.
All that being said, the defense is obviously not what it was last year. The penalty kill was ridiculous to this point last year, only allowing goals on 10.3% of opponent’s power plays. This year, those numbers are up 7.4% and are far too high for this team to sustain success. The Eagles are in 10th, or third to last place in Hockey East in PK% right now, and when they start facing the BU’s and UML’s of the conference, that’s going to come back to bite them. Especially if…
…penalty numbers remain as egregiously high as they are. Last year, the team could be infuriating at times with the amount of penalties they’d take. But, you’d have to find ways to remind yourself that it’s a part of college hockey. But this year, throw the reminders out the window. 6.2 penalties per game??? It’s simply inexcusable. And operating the way their penalty kill is, taking that many penalties is handing your opponents a goal a game (1.09 goals to be exact). It has obviously felt bad this year, but when you break down the numbers like that, it’s truly horrifying. Therein lies the biggest difference between this year’s team and last’s.
Overall, though, there’s a lot of parity between these two teams. Both suffered a bad loss early to a lesser foe and hung their first halves on a lengthy undefeated streak. They’re both top 10 teams with just one Hockey East team above them nationally and the entirety of Hockey East gazing up at them atop the conference standings.
When you look at everything, you have to be pretty pleased with the similarities between a team rolling out 10 freshmen every night and last year’s Frozen Four squad. Hats off to Jerry York (or do we address him as Cap’n York now?) for working his magic once again and getting these boys ready to go and in a prime position to make another run at the tournament.
Part 2 of the First Half Recap will be published in a couple of hours, looking at the team’s position in Hockey East as well as where they’ve excelled and where they need to improve. Stay tuned!