Boston University forward Jack Eichel gathers the puck calmly in his defensive zone on an October evening in UMass Amherst’s Mullins Center.
He finds an open teammate with a quick pass along the back line, and then turns on the jets. With as powerful a stride as one will see from a college hockey player, Eichel sneaks past the first line of defense, swings out wide, and cuts back to the middle to receive the puck again. He nudges the disc away from his body, and before UMass goaltender Steve Mastalerz can blink, snaps the back of the net with a howling shot. He would finish the game with two goals, two assists, and a plus-five rating.
Across town from Terrier territory, Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin is busy preparing to lock down superstars like Eichel. With his menacing 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame, Hanifin usually matches up with the top scoring line on the opposing team, and he usually has his way with them. A plus-two thus far in the 2014 campaign, Hanifin is calm, cool, and collected on the ice, even when facing players up to five years his senior. The offensively inclined blueliner has the puck-handling skills of a forward, combined with the backchecking ability of a stay-at-home defenseman. The freshman shows poise usually reserved for veterans, approaching even the grandest of stages like a daily practice session.
The Eagles and the Terriers have been trading blows since 1918, facing off 265 times since that first fateful showdown. Many of college hockey’s legends have partaken in the Green Line rivalry, with the two teams trading eras of dominance. Considering that the BC-BU rivalry is so rich with history and tradition, it’s a wonder that the success of each squad this year falls on players who couldn’t legally buy tobacco products at the start of the season.
Eichel, despite his age and inexperience, is BU’s heart and soul. He is the driving force behind a team that is currently having its best start since 2001—incredibly, he was just a toddler back then. A consensus top-five overall pick in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, Eichel was dubbed the “new face of American hockey” based on his performance in the U-20 World Junior Championships for the U.S. Hanifin, on the other hand, will be tasked with ripping out the heart of the Terriers, guiding the Eagles’ defensive corps against the nation’s leader in points per game. With partner-in-crime Steve Santini out for much of 2014 following wrist surgery and captain Mike Matheson continuing to show frequent lapses in his game, Hanifin will be asked to step up when he’s on the ice, making an even bigger impact than usual.
In hockey, more so than in other sports, a top prospective talent generally skips college and goes straight to the junior hockey leagues of Canada. There, he is developed and groomed for the professional game, focusing on nothing but his sport during the year. BC fans experienced this when 2014 commit Sonny Milano bolted before the start of the season to sign a pro contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Occasionally, though, big-time players like Hanifin and Eichel come along with the promise of contribution the second they set foot on the ice. These types of players, guys who are essentially guaranteed—barring a disastrous season—to be picked in the top 10 next year, do not appear often. It is even more rare for the two best (and youngest) American prospects at the time to attend rival institutions just miles away from each other in the hotbed of collegiate ice hockey. While this hasn’t occurred frequently in the past, it might be a sign of things to come.
No longer does a player have to “learn the ropes” for a year or two before becoming a featured piece of his team. Gone are the days in which freshmen ride the pine while upperclassmen do all of the work. Not only are Eichel and Hanifin receiving major minutes on their top-five ranked teams, but they are the keys to their respective units, the motors that keep everything running.
The changing of the guard at BC and BU proves the Year of the Freshman Phenom is upon us. The young guns are here, and they’re showing that they can hang with the older boys. They’ll determine the victor this Friday night—and beyond.
Featured Image by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff