Top Story, Men's Hockey

Eagles Begin Quest For Frozen Four Against Denver

“Win four and you’re a champion.”

-Thatcher Demko

That’s all it is. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the regular season. Any team can go on a hot streak to end the year. We see it in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, like last year’s national title game featuring the University of Connecticut, a No. 7-seed, and the University of Kentucky, a No. 8-seed. It even happens in the pros—the San Francisco Giants fell ass-backward in the MLB playoffs before winning the World Series.

This year, the 16 teams in the tournament sit fairly close to one another in the Pairwise—teams ranked eighth through 12th all are within .005 RPI of each other. Even the four top schools (North Dakota, Minnesota State-Mankato, Boston University, and Miami (OH) University) have had difficulty separating themselves from the pack. There’s a widespread feeling in college hockey that anyone has the chance to come away with a title in 2015.

Jerry York and his Eagles believe they are that team. Following their much-ballyhooed early-season slump, the Eagles (21-13-3, 12-7-3 HEA) have sat on the bubble throughout their in-conference schedule.

BC faltered to Vermont in the Hockey East Quarterfinals, but the committee felt the team’s overall body of work deserved a No. 3-seed as well as a ticket to stay close to home in the East Regional at Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center. “To stay home, it’s better for our fanbase and just the travel, it’s terrific,” York said. “It doesn’t guarantee that maybe we couldn’t have come out of South Bend or Fargo, but I think the travel and the proximity to our fanbase is a real plus for sure.”

To advance, BC will first have to go through a strong opponent No. 5 University of Denver Pioneers (23-13-2, 13-10-1-1 National Collegiate Hockey Conference), a team the Eagles know well. Back in October, BC split a two-game set at Denver. In the first, BC took down DU 2-1 behind goals from Ryan Fitzgerald. The second was an overtime thriller, with Denver’s freshman playmaker Danton Heinen sliding the 2-1 game-winner past Demko. BC also defeated the Pioneers last season, 6-2, in the first round of the 2014 Northeast Regional.

But it’s hard to put a lot of stock into that playoff result. This Eagles team focuses on strength behind the blue line instead of an electric offense. “We’ve got to be prepared to win the 1-0, 2-1 game,” Demko said. “For me, learning how to play that kind of way is huge.”

He reflected that growth throughout this season. Demko raised his save percentage from .919 to .927 while lowering his goals against average from 2.24 to 2.14, showing his ability to adapt to the heavier pressure on him. He’ll have to keep up that strong play against a Pioneers’ offense that ranks ninth in the country in scoring with 3.29 goals per game. Led by forwards Heinen (16 goals, 29 assists) and Trevor Moore (21 goals, 21 assists), and defenseman Joey LaLeggia (13 goals, 25 assists), DU has stayed competitive in the country’s most cutthroat conference—the NCHC—which features six teams in the tournament, including two top seeds (UND and Miami). The Pioneers also come in hot—8-4-1 in their last 10 games, including a 5-1 demolition of then-No. 1 North Dakota in the NCHC Third Place Game.

Regardless of a team’s offensive firepower, Demko routinely responds. The goalie faced five teams ranked higher than Denver in offense, putting up a respectable 3-3-1 record against them (BC’s first game against Harvard came with Brad Barone in net). BC should also benefit from Denver’s travel struggles. The Pioneers are 6-7-2 away from DU’s Magness Arena, the worst road record among the four Northeast Regional teams this year. Teams who must fly to their regionals struggle mightily, combining for a 38-54 record since 2008.

Demko has the luxury of a dominating corps of defensemen. Led by wunderkind Noah Hanifin and bruiser Ian McCoshen, York’s men not only prevent shots from getting to Demko but also attack opposing goaltenders—Hanifin was the team’s point leader in HEA play with four goals and 16 assists.

For all their defensive success, the Eagles may have problems on the attack. BC has notched 2.81 goals per game (24th in the country), a significant dropoff from last year’s offense, which paced the nation with 4.10 goals per game. This is a team that doesn’t have a single forward with more than 30 points—Yale and Minnesota-Duluth are the only other teams in the tournament that also lack that big-name offensive threat. In addition, the top line of Alex Tuch, Adam Gilmour, and Zach Sanford look lost at times, going long stretches without putting pressure on opposing goaltenders. It’s not a knock on their talent—when on, the line is as dangerous as any—as much as on their youth and inexperience.

Their job doesn’t get any easier against DU’s tandem of goalies: sophomore Evan Cowley (9-6-2, 2.16 GAA, .924 save percentage) and freshman Tanner Jaillet (14-7, 2.38 GAA, .917 save percentage). Jalliet’s numbers may not seem impressive on the surface, but neither did those of UVM’s Brody Hoffman. Unlike the Catamounts, who rode Mike Santaguida until his playoff implosion forced a change to Hoffman, Denver head coach Jim Montgomery consistently uses both goalies. The younger goalie comes into this game just as prepared as Cowley.

York thinks the two teams’ familiarity with one another will make this matchup interesting. “It’s a rivalry there between Denver and BC, and I think it helps both clubs,” York said. “I think we kind of know each other, how we play. Now it’s just, who’s gotten better since October? Who’s stayed healthy since October?”

The truth is, it’s both teams. Neither has faced a significant injury this season and both have risen dramatically in the USCHO Polls since turning to 2015. Vegas opens the betting lines with Denver as 1.5-point favorites. The Eagles will also face a tough potential second matchup in either NCHC champion Miami (OH) or Providence, who lucked into a home game despite getting a No. 15-seed. Despite this, Demko feels like underdogs don’t exist in college hockey. “There’s a lot of circumstances where, you know, it’s a low seed team and you just hit your peak at the right time,” Demko said. “A good example is Yale—they were a 15 or 16 overall seed and they ended up just winning four games. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”

This year, anyone can win four games. And that might include BC.

Heights Sports Predictions:
Michael Sullivan, Sports Editor—BC over Denver, PC over Miami (OH), BC over PC
Jack Stedman, Assoc. Sports Editor—BC over Denver, Miami (OH) over BC, Miami (OH) over BC
Tom DeVoto, Asst. Sports Editor—BC over Denver, PC over Miami (OH), PC over BC
Arthur Bailin, Photo Editor—BC over Denver, Miami (OH) over PC, BC over Miami (OH)
Connor Mellas, Heights Senior Staff—BC over Denver, PC over Miami (OH), BC over PC
Michael Hoff, Heights Staff—BC over Denver, PC over Miami (OH), BC over PC
Johnny Carey, Heights Staff—BC over Denver, Miami (OH) over PC, Miami (OH) over BC

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Sports Staff


March 26, 2015