Sports, Hockey

MEN’S HOCKEY: Best Of Boston

In recent years, the first Monday in February has marked more than the first leg of the Beanpot. It’s also meant that Boston College is a week away from bringing cherished Boston bragging rights home to the western border of the city in Chestnut Hill.

The Eagles have won the tournament the last four years and five out of the last six. Head coach Jerry York’s program is the preeminent one in the country, let alone the city. BC is the clear favorite Monday night at 8 p.m. against BU, and should the Eagles beat the Terriers for the third time this season, BC will be favored against either Northeastern or Harvard next Monday night, regardless of how long senior winger Kevin Hayes’ hip injury keeps him in the press box.

Trophies are the standard for the BC men’s hockey team, and excluding a national title and the Lamoriello trophy, none is more important than this one. Given the nature of the sport, the format of the tournament and the intensity of the rivalries involved, though-nothing is guaranteed when Northeastern, BU, Harvard and BC overtake the TD Garden.

Those factors combined make for an atmosphere that can render any records, rankings, or prior matchups irreverent. Surely, York’s players will be ready tonight for a hard-fought primetime bout between the bitterest rivals in the area, in the region’s biggest college hockey stage.

“We’re not concerned about recent records, it’s how you play [that] night,” York said prior to the most recent game between the Commonwealth Ave. rivals. “The team that plays best [that] night will win 95 percent of the time. Some nights there are crossbars and posts. But it’s not how we played last week or how BU played last week but it’s how each team plays.”

On the surface, York was right. The Terriers, ranked No. 46 in Division I and crippled by injuries and a deficiency in skill, were one last-minute goal away from sending the game to overtime before Eagles forward Johnny Gaudreau’s empty netter sealed the win.

A closer look at that game, though, underscores the real difference between the two clubs. BC took six penalties and was winning for the majority of the game and still outshot BU 44-27. BU goalie Sean Maguire let in five goals, but his stellar play kept the game from blowout territory. Eagles goalie Brian Billett’s shaky play let BU back in the game, and he hasn’t played since. Freshman Thatcher Demko has started the last four games for BC and looks to be the entrenched starter. Demko now has several impressive road wins on his resume, including rock-solid performances at UNH, Penn State, Providence, and BU back in November.

That game was more indicative of how these teams match up. BC led the entire game, took seven penalties, and still outshot BU 40-23, and it showed on the scoreboard that time with a 5-1 win. As York said, Demko was “outstanding,” and only let a fluky power play redirect behind him. This game was also before BC’s power play production matched its talent, a unit that was “the difference” in the second game, according to BU head coach David Quinn. That conundrum seems to have been solved, and Quinn now has to worry about the nation’s best offense at all times.

Quinn was encouraged by his team’s effort in the latter matchup, though, saying it was “a step in the right direction.” Yet the Terriers continue to struggle. BU has only won one out of its four games since it played BC and suffered a demoralizing tie to Hockey East bottom-dweller UMass on Friday due to a blown lead late. Worse, the Minutemen outshot BU 49-22.

If a pattern isn’t clear yet, it should be: BU gets outshot a lot, by a lot, and its puck possession woes lend to its 1-8-2 record since the start of December. Losing its best player, defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, early in January didn’t help, but with or without him, the Terriers see too much rubber going the wrong way. Per’s Scott McLaughlin, the Terriers get outshot by over 10 shots each game. Near them in those shot differential rankings are American International and Alabama-Huntsville. Yes, Alabama-Hunstville has a hockey team.

Unless those crossbars, posts, and the ghosts of Jack Parker and Mike Eruzione intervene, BC should advance to the final against either Northeastern or Harvard, who play the earlier first-round game. BC swept Northeastern in an early November home-and-home and clobbered Harvard 5-1 on the road later that month.

Aside from a sleepy start to the second period by the Eagles and a garbage-time power-play goal from Harvard, the gulf between the Crimson and BC was obvious in November, and it likely would be again should 43rd-ranked Harvard get by Northeastern and meet the Eagles in the final-assuming BC makes it that far.

Harvard’s overall record is 6-11-3, and the team has just nine conference points in 15 league games. Head coach Ted Donato, now in his 10th season in charge at Cambridge, brings in quality recruits but hasn’t produced in recent years. Donato’s career winning percentage with the Crimson is .472.
“I think we are capable of making a pretty big jump soon,” Donato told “We have showed signs and we have played in spurts pretty well.”

Donato could take that “big jump” in this tournament by capturing the first Beanpot title for his alma mater since just after he left campus for the NHL. Harvard hasn’t won the late game on the second Monday in February in 21 years, and the last time it played in that game was 1998.

One of Donato’s prominent recruits is now Harvard’s leading scorer Jimmy Vesey. Vesey is a third-round pick of the Nashville Predators and commands the attention of whomever Harvard plays. Another thing to watch for in a potential Harvard-BC matchup is that the last time these teams met, Eagles senior Bill Arnold took a a game misconduct in the third period and the whole team racked up eight total penalties.

Northeastern would present a greater challenge. The Huskies made BC earn its 4-3 OT win at Matthews’ Arena like few opponents have. The Eagles rallied from a two-goal third period deficit and had to fight for everything they got. Head coach Jim Madigan’s team has since rocketed to No. 10 in Division I and is tied with UMass-Lowell for second place in Hockey East, behind BC.

Northeastern has its own possession issues, though. According to McLauglin, only BU is outshot on a per-game basis more than Northeastern in Hockey East (5.42 shots per game). Unlike BU, Northeastern has a game-breaker and a goalie that can bail out the rest of the team. Last year’s Beanpot MVP, now-sophomore Kevin Roy, can fill up box scores as well as anyone in the conference who isn’t on BC’s top line, and senior goalie Clay Witt is tied with Demko for the lead in conference save percentage at .953.

The likely final is the Huskies and the Eagles, and if that occurs, Witt and Roy would probably need to be the best players on the ice that night if the Huskies were to have a good chance of winning, because the TD Garden won’t mimic Matthews Arena’s raucous student section that hangs over the ice in the century-old layout of Northeastern’s home rink.

Anything can happen in two hockey games, especially these particular two. But BC hasn’t lost in the past 12 games for a reason, and it’s the same reason it hasn’t lost at this tournament in four years: the Eagles are the standard for college hockey in this area. Because of that standard and the one they set for themselves, York’s team is the overwhelming favorite to win its second trophy of the season. This one would probably feel a little different than the Three Rivers Classic cup, though. It is the Beanpot, after all.

February 3, 2014