Men's Hockey, Column

Heading Into NCAA Tourney, Eagles Have Cause for Concern

BOSTON — For much of the 2015-16 season, Boston College men’s hockey looked like a dominant force primed to make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament.

But the team that showed up last night in the Hockey East Tournament Semifinals would be lucky to advance past the first round.

The Eagles (26-7-5) turned in a lackluster effort brimming with careless turnovers and needless penalties in a disappointing defeat at the hands of Northeastern University (21-13-5). BC didn’t look ready to play, and the Huskies frustrated the Eagles on each end of the ice with their physicality.

Based on what happened pregame, we should have seen this loss coming a mile away.

BC sat in the locker room at TD Garden, waiting anxiously to take on Northeastern in a much-awaited contest to send one team to the championship. The first game of that night’s doubleheader between UMass Lowell and Providence—a 2-1 win for the River Hawks—went into triple overtime to significantly push back BC and NU’s start time from 8 p.m. to 10:33 p.m. When the Eagles finally charged out of the tunnel and onto the ice, they looked sluggish, took unnecessary penalties, and dropped the contest to the underdog Northeastern squad by one goal.

That game was a little over a year ago, in the 2015 Beanpot semifinals. But the same exact thing happened Saturday night.

After scoring two goals each in regulation, UMass Lowell and Providence needed to play nearly an entire additional game to score one more. The River Hawks finally ended the marathon with a deflection off a skate in the third overtime period, but by then, it was already an hour after BC and Northeastern should have started their game. Factor in the 55-minute warmup period allotted between games, and it was clear that it was going to be a long night.

So it was deja vu all over again for the Eagles, who presumably want nothing to do with the Huskies with a trophy on the line late in the season.

And while that game is over, BC’s season is not. So where do the Eagles go from here?

BC was an obvious lock to appear in the NCAA Tournament field, but it played itself out of a chance for one of the top four seeds with the loss. As the top overall No. 2 seed, the Eagles will take on a familiar foe in Harvard University on Friday in Worcester, Mass. The only time the teams matched up this year was in the first round of Beanpot—BC took that game by a score of 3-2.

The Eagles got what the seed and opponent deserved, but it’s unlikely that the team is thrilled about playing Harvard once again. BC had to come back from an early deficit to win in this year’s Beanpot, and the Crimson likely know the Eagles better at this point than most of the other teams in the tournament.  

Whereas the Eagles are loaded with depth from top to bottom, the Crimson claim one of the best players in college in Jimmy Vesey, a few very capable linemates to complement him in Kyle Criscuolo and Alexander Kerfoot, and not much else below that. Harvard’s top line makes up more than a third of the team’s total points.

The most interesting matchup between the two teams, especially given BC’s play in recent games, will be between the specialty units. Harvard boasts the No. 4 power play in the country, while BC has the No. 4 penalty kill in the NCAA.

Looking forward in the bracket, assuming the top seed wins each game, the Eagles would face Providence College—another team with which it is very familiar—in the Northeast Regional Final. In three consecutive games against the Friars over Winter Break, BC lost at a neutral site, won at home, and tied on the road.     

But more importantly than the seeding and the potential opponents, the Eagles simply are not playing their best hockey of the season when it matters most.

Thatcher Demko’s final stat line doesn’t read like that of a Hobey Baker Award nominee, but he was clearly the best player on the ice for the Eagles, making two of the most impressive saves that anyone has seen this season. As Demko’s defensemen allowed Northeastern skaters open shooting angles from all sides, Demko flew around the net, blocking pucks in any way that he could.

None of the goals were really Demko’s fault—one came on a two-on-one chance from point-blank range, two came on the power play, and two came off careless turnovers in the defensive zone. There was only so much the goalie could do to stop the superior Northeastern attack.

Following a lackluster three-game series against the University of Vermont in the Hockey East Quarterfinals, the loss to Northeastern should serve as a wake-up call for the Eagles heading into the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies sit firmly on the NCAA bubble, so the remaining games for BC will only be tougher.

After the game, BC head coach Jerry York said that the team would specifically focus in practice this week on getting “better,” in a lot of facets of the game. There’s a big difference between improving skills that have already been mastered and adding (or re-learning) new skills to the repertoire. Based on York’s comment and the Eagles’ game on Saturday night, it seems that they’ll be doing the latter.

That’s not the type of improvement a team should be looking to make just a week before its biggest game of the season. But if the Eagles don’t get “better” at each end of the ice, they’ll reach the end of the road sooner than they’d prefer.  

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

March 21, 2016