Men's Hockey, Column, Featured Column

Fearing The Underdog: Why Not To Give Up On BC Men’s Hockey Just Yet

“We played what I call kids hockey early in the season, and now we’re playing a man’s game, and that’s been the difference.”

-Jerry York

There’s a weird feeling at Kelley Rink these days.

After years of title-winning and chart-topping, fans and pundits have stopped believing in the 2014-15 Boston College men’s hockey team. The Eagles faced heavy expectations after a Frozen Four berth in 2014. BC came into this season ranked No. 4, despite losing the team’s lifeblood—Bill Arnold, Kevin Hayes, and Johnny Gaudreau, one of the highest-scoring lines in NCAA history.

Following a November spell in which the team lost four games in a row—the first such stretch for the Eagles in a decade—hope for another highly successful season in Chestnut Hill dropped dramatically.

The USCHO rankings reflected the perception of the team, dropping BC into double digits for the first time since Nov. 21, 2010 and as low as 19th for the first time since Mar. 7, 2009.

And as we head into this year’s Beanpot on Tuesday, BC feels like a significant underdog, especially in the final round, in which the Eagles play either Boston University or Harvard.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been one of the best teams in the country, and everybody’s still looking at us like an underdog,” Eagles’ forward Zach Sanford said following the Providence game. “I think that gives us the advantage there to come in and beat everyone and see how far we can make a run for it.”

The freshman forward makes a good point—it seems strange the Eagles still have this negative perception. They are 9-1-1 over their last 11 games, and have skyrocketed their way into second place in Hockey East after dipping as low as 10th. Still, BC finds itself relatively low in the USCHO’s Pairwise Rankings at 12th, behind Providence even after beating the Friars on Friday night.

Despite the team’s 16-8-2 record, why is BC getting such a bad rap this year?

It begins with that early season slump—specifically, the teams that the Eagles played to cause the losing streak. After falling to Denver and Connecticut on the road in mid-November, BC dropped consecutive games to BU and Harvard—neither of which were pretty losses. Against BU, the Eagles blew a 3-2 lead in the third period by allowing three unanswered goals. Playing Harvard, BC got crushed, falling 6-3 thanks to a hat trick by the Crimson’s Alexander Kerfoot.

And while those two teams dominated (BU is No. 2, Harvard No. 4), BC became the third-best team in its own city.

Other teams in Hockey East began heating up as well. UMass-Lowell, a team that BC lost to in the season opener, topped the conference standings for much of the season. Vermont rode a hot start into the New Year. Even Providence, with some early season struggles of its own, picked up steam in the national view.

BC head coach Jerry York recognizes the problem of that early season start.

“We’ve buried ourselves a good hole—we’ve been 18th, 19th, 20th,” York said on Friday.

Early season perceptions, like BC as a team that’s struggling, often stick unless proven otherwise. I see it with baseball and player careers all the time—Derek Jeter got a reputation for being a defensive whiz for a heads-up flip in 2001. Look at the stats, and you’ll see Jeter is one of baseball’s worst defensive players of all time.

“When we were 0-4, we were playing like little kids play,” York said of his team’s losing streak.

It’s a reasonable excuse. The Eagles are one of the youngest teams in the nation, with a completely revamped top offensive line led by two freshmen (Zach Sanford and Alex Tuch) and a sophomore (Adam Gilmour). While Sanford, Tuch, and Gilmour have played admirably this season, they’re just not the same as last season’s top line.

That, however, is a huge reason why the Eagles feel like a disappointment despite their performance. To compare any college hockey team to the offensive production put up by the 2013-14 BC men’s hockey team would simply be unfair.

Last year’s Eagles outpaced every offense in the NCAA. BC averaged 4.1 goals per game, .3 more than second place Union (oh, the irony). In addition, the Eagles had three of the top five players in hockey. Arnold notched 14 goals and 39 assists, fifth in the nation. Hayes placed second in the country with 65 points—27 goals and 38 assists. And Johnny Hockey (currently in the trademark process) destroyed them all, compiling 80 points on 36 goals and 44 assists.

Last season, the production all came from the top. Through 40 games, only eight players surpassed the 20-point mark, with 43 percent of the points coming solely from that top line.

This year’s Eagles don’t have a single player in the top 80 in points. A lot of that, however, has to do with how BC set up its team. The Eagles came into the season knowing their strength circled around their defense. Mike Matheson, Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen, and newcomer Noah Hanifin could prevent shots from getting to Thatcher Demko, while allowing just enough to score. Moreover, BC set up its team to spread around the offensive production. Through 26 games, the Eagles have 11 players with more than 10 points—the separation between No. 1 (Gilmour) and No. 6 (Matheson) is only four points. And the Eagles, while scoring a full goal fewer per game this season, still rank 10th in the nation.

“That’s the type of game that I think we’re built to play, that 3-2, 2-1 type game,” York said. “We’re not going to win many games 7-5 or any type of shootout games.”

It may be hard to hear York’s comments—after all, goals bring more smiles than saves—but the fact remains that this year’s Eagles are a completely different team, one built on its impressive defense. Although the strategy isn’t as flashy as the powerful Gaudreau line, it’s working very well.

But if you ask Sanford, he’d rather nobody know that.

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

February 2, 2015