Featured Column, Men's Hockey, Column

Michael Kim and the Eagles’ Defense Have Put Them on the National Stage

It was the definition of a trap game.

Boston College men’s hockey had just come off two consecutive great games: a domination of No. 10 Notre Dame on the road, followed by an impressive defensive effort over No. 7 Harvard. Those two wins helped fully stave off the team’s early-season reputation of solely being capable of beating up on teams in the bottom half of the division. And with the Beanpot final versus Boston University looming, the Eagles appeared poised to solidify themselves as the best team in college hockey.

All that stood in the way was the University of New Hampshire.

Though a shell of the program that gave Jerry York’s crew fits in the early 2000s, the Wildcats feature a top line that’s arguably the most dangerous in the country. Andrew Poturalski, Tyler Kelleher, and Dan Correale have combined for a whopping 104 points and use their speed to effectively weave through any blue line squad that a team can throw at them.

The Eagles held them down for as long as they could, but Poturalski broke through to tie Friday night’s game at two late in the second period. Surely, BC’s defense, which had been deemed the team’s weak spot entering the year, lacked the depth to hold UNH for the final 20 minutes. And with Miles Wood and Chris Calnan both out and Colin White nursing a sprained wrist, it would’ve been easy to write off BC and treat this game like the Notre Dame loss in December or BC’s two late ties against Northeastern and Connecticut.

At the beginning of the season, that might have been fair. But Michael Kim has made sure that defensive depth isn’t a problem for BC anymore. In fact, the Eagles’ deep blue line, something that was once considered a weakness, is perhaps the biggest reason why they are contending for a No. 1 seed.

Kim, a first-semester freshman who played in the U.S. Premier Hockey League as recently as two months ago, has provided a jolt for the Eagles in his quick transition to the college game.

Since he matriculated early for the Florida College Hockey Classic when White was at the World Juniors and Wood was suspended, Kim has showed how skilled he is by often poking away the puck from Hockey East’s most powerful forwards, many of whom body up well with his 6-foot, 185-pound frame. He stays low to the ice, helping him chase down forwards on breakaways. That occurred several times during the UNH game—he masterfully prevented Kelleher and Poturalski from taking advantage of 3-on-2 chances by diving with his stick to knock away easy attempts on goaltender Thatcher Demko. And with the leadership help of his defensive partner, Steve Santini, Kim looks as if he has been at BC for years.

If you ask Kim, the only thing that hasn’t been easy for him was readjusting to school. Kim graduated high school in 2014 and spent a year and a half with the Boston Jr. Bruins, so getting back in the saddle with the whole class thing has taken getting used to.

But his skill doesn’t stop there. Against New Hampshire, Kim showed how he can be a force on the offensive side of the puck, too.

Desperately needing to regain that lead, the Eagles rushed UNH goaltender Danny Tirone, who, to that point, had played the best game of the season. As they set up in standard offensive position, Santini handled the puck. The defenseman pinched on the right side, came around the net, peeled out, and nailed Kim with a wide open pass right on the tape.

“It was the perfect spot for me to take the shot,” Kim said following Friday’s game.

So the freshman did. Kim sent the puck hurtling toward the net. He had hoped that Matthew Gaudreau or Austin Cangelosi could take advantage of the screen on Tirone and tip it in to give BC the lead. But instead, the puck nestled itself against the twine, giving Kim his first collegiate goal.

Kim jubilantly raised his hands while Gaudreau and Cangelosi skated over to join in on the celebration. Santini stayed out of the main action, skating back out to Tirone to snag the puck. According to York, Santini later awarded it to Kim in the locker room.

It’s hard to ignore the effect Kim has had on this team. You can’t ignore the fact that, after his first game in a BC uniform—the 2-1 loss to Providence when a last-minute goal was waved off due to lack of replay and a fire delayed the final 10 seconds for about an hour—the team hasn’t lost. The Eagles have run through four ranked teams—Providence, BU, Notre Dame, and Harvard—without coming away with at least a point.

But the reason BC has jumped into the “Best Team in College Hockey” conversation is because of this whole defensive unit.

Last year’s Eagles were completely built on the blue line. Noah Hanifin and Mike Matheson gave Demko every advantage he needed on two ailing hips, and while they often shut down opposing offense, it rarely was enough to lead to wins. Alex Tuch, Zach Sanford, Ryan Fitzgerald, and Adam Gilmour were the only real offensive threats.

This season was the reverse. BC’s hopes were raised with the influx of new forward talent like White and Wood (and, at one point, Jeremy Bracco), the development of forwards like Cangelosi and Gaudreau, and a healthy Demko.

The only thing that could hold back the Eagles was a lack of depth along the defensive front. York knew he had a sure thing in Ian McCoshen. After him came huge question marks. Santini was nursing a wrist injury that kept him out for two months last season. Casey Fitzgerald, Ryan’s younger brother, went undrafted but came in as a decent prospect. Captain Teddy Doherty had played forward for much of 2014-15. Scott Savage had shown good flashes but lacked consistency, while newcomer Josh Couturier was still raw.

Yet with how they’ve played as a unit both offensively and defensively—each player has already or will soon set a career-high in points—this defense has proved it is just as strong as the offense. The Eagles are a unit that is at least seven-deep on the blue line. The three freshmen are skilled enough to allow Doherty to seamlessly move to forward when one of them is injured. That’s not a luxury BC had last year.

So if the offense is, as it always was, a sure thing, Demko is finally healthy, and the defense has maximized its fullest potential, what’s stopping BC from rolling through the rest of its schedule on a crash course for Tampa in early April?

You tell me.

Featured Image by Lucius Xuan / Heights Staff

February 8, 2016