The 2014-15 Boston College men’s hockey team: 10th in Hockey East. A record that, just last week, sat under .500. A USCHO Poll ranking in the double digits. None of that seems right. This is a program that just notched three national championships in a five-year span. It’s manned by the all-time winningest coach in NCAA hockey history, not to mention nine players already drafted by an NHL team and another projected to go in the top five in 2015.
Voters had high hopes going into the year for BC after last season ended in heartbreaking fashion down in Philly. Despite a disappointing defeat by a tough Union College team in last year’s Frozen Four, the USCHO awarded Jerry York’s team with the fourth spot in the preseason poll, with some believing BC would once again contend for a sixth national championship.
But this year’s team lacks the star power of last season’s. Losing his super line, York constructed this year’s roster with Bear Bryant’s words in mind—“offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” He combined experienced returners, such as captain Michael Matheson and the talented Steve Santini, with younger standouts, like freshman Noah Hanifin. Based on the veterans’ past performance and Hanifin’s scouting reports, the Eagles were supposed to own the blue line.
Everything but that has happened early in this season. So, what can the Eagles do to fix this season before it’s too late?
Problem: The Eagles defense consistently underperformed in its first 10 games.
Solution: Be patient. The famed Alabama football coach’s cliche may seem tired at this point, but BC will succeed through its defense this year. To start, the two biggest stars—Hanifin and Matheson—must, and will, step up big time. Hanifin’s plus/minus sits at four under even, the worst on the team. Matheson’s inconsistent play—most notably against Harvard, when the Eagles allowed three goals with the captain on the ice—damaged this team’s chances in close yet winnable matchups against Boston University and Denver.
Poor performance from great players often evens out over time, though. In 2004, Minnesota Twins pitcher Johan Santana seemed a mere mortal in the first half, with a 7-6 record and a 3.78 ERA. In the second half, however, he crushed opponents, with a 13-0 record to the tune of a 1.21 ERA and the Cy Young Award. Things look bad now, but consider that Hanifin is the second-youngest player in the league—the-17-year old has jitters, and justifiably so. As for Matheson, trust the stats—the junior finished with a plus/minus at 18 over even last season. He’s shown he can run the show at a high level—eventually he should show results.
Problem: Okay, say Hanifin and Matheson eventually meet expectations. What about the rest of the team?
Solution: Have faith in the bench’s depth. Losing Santini—BC’s best stay-at-home blue liner—considerably hurt the Eagles’ depth. After suffering a broken wrist against UMass on Oct. 25, he’s not expected to play until January. That means BC must rely more on its second and third pairing defensemen, like Teddy Doherty and Ian McCoshen. Similar to Matheson, Doherty and McCoshen put up big numbers last season, combining for a plus/minus at plus-35, according to Hockey East. Both have continued that this season, especially Doherty, at plus-10—he also shows strength offensively, with a team-leading seven assists. If these two continue their impressive play, the Eagles will become considerably stronger once Santini returns.
Problem: What about between the pipes? The Eagles have already allowed 25 goals this season. Doesn’t the responsibility lie there, too?
Solution: Not as much as you may think. Sophomore goalie Thatcher Demko has given BC dominating performances, proving to be an invaluable asset to the Eagles again this season. In the nine games he’s played, Demko’s allowed a mere 2.1 goals per game on a .923 shot percentage, mirroring his stellar freshman year when he allowed 2.24 goals per game on a .919 shot percentage, according to the USCHO. Some of the goals he’s given up, especially against BU, resulted from lucky bounces and blown coverages, not Demko’s poor play. Additionally, when a 103-degree fever handcuffed Demko before the Harvard game, senior Brad Barone filled in on short notice, putting in an admirable performance in his first collegiate start. A healthy Demko will keep the Eagles in games this season—no reason to worry on this front.
Problem: Even so, the Eagles lack the offensive firepower of last year’s team.
Solution: There’s no denying this team lacks a top-level goal scorer like BU’s Jack Eichel or Notre Dame’s Mario Lucia. Opponents held BC to no more than three goals in any of its last six contests, as the Eagles lost four of their last six. The offense, however, gets its spark from sophomore forward Ryan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald leads the charge this season for the Eagles, scoring seven of BC’s 30 goals this season—the most on the team and second in Hockey East. This keeps consistent with his impressive freshman season, as Fitz made a name for himself as a playmaker among that powerhouse trio of forwards—he notched 13 goals and 16 assists, giving hope to the future of York’s team. It seems a lot to ask of Fitzgerald, to try and match the production of Gaudreau or Hayes—however, he now is the go-to goal scorer for the Eagles. He just needs to keep playing like it.
Problem: All that said, BC still seems unfocused on the ice.
Solution: Sloppiness and inconsistency plagues BC more than anything. On offense, the Eagles look out of sync—consistently in their losses, they miss easy passes, get off bad shots, and have trouble taking advantage of the power play, most notably against Harvard when they failed on all of their seven opportunities. Defensively, BC struggles to prevent the easy shots, often screening Demko and allowing easy tip-ins, like Evan Rodrigues’ go-ahead goal for the Terriers two weeks ago.
BC needs the experienced Fitzgerald and Matheson to lead the Eagles—the country’s second youngest team—by example. Matheson must get past his sloppy play and perform to his talent-level. This may inspire Hanifin, as the blue line mates would then work most effectively. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, should keep doing what he’s doing. With many of BC’s goal scorers—Alex Tuch, Zach Sanford, Adam Gilmour—either the same age as Fitzgerald or younger, he already fills the void at the role model position. Fitz now needs to show the new kids how to succeed.
Big Picture: For the Eagles to return to their championship form, first they need Matheson and Hanifin both to overcome their poor starts. Additionally, Doherty and McCoshen need to play at consistently high levels while Santini recovers from injury. Everyone needs to stop blaming the goalies for losing games, because they’ve done a heckuva job. Fitzgerald needs to keep scoring. And, while focusing on their own play, Fitzgerald and Matheson must ignite the younger players to tap into their full potential. All of this should equal a climb back to the Promised Land of the Frozen Four. Seems easy enough, right?
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor