Sports, Hockey, Men's Hockey

Go Figure: How BC Reached the NCAA Tournament

When sports came to a screeching halt last March, no team seemed more poised for hardware than Boston College men’s hockey. The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to what had been a nearly impeccable season for head coach Jerry York and his squad. Prior to the postseason cancellations, BC sat atop Hockey East, but the Eagles never got a shot at either their conference tournament or the NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing some key senior players such as 2019-20 captain David Cotton, this year’s team came out hungry. Led by the sophomore trio of Alex Newhook, Matt Boldy, and Mike Hardman up top, plus Spencer Knight in goal, BC found itself ranked No. 2 on USA Today’s preseason rankings. The team lived up to those lofty expectations, finishing this season with a 17-5-1 record behind its strong offense and penalty kill unit, which earned the team a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.  

After COVID-19 protocols forced Notre Dame—scheduled to take on BC in the regional semifinal on Saturday—to withdraw from the tournament, the Eagles will now take on the winner of St. Cloud State and Boston University’s matchup in the NCAA regional final. With just one win, the Eagles can advance to their first Frozen Four since 2016.

Here’s how BC got here, by the numbers:

Red Hot From the Jump

Even though the Eagles were ranked No. 2 in the country prior to the start of the season, they were without the reigning Rookie of the Year Newhook for a while. He was set to miss a large portion of the beginning of the season while lacing up for Team Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championships.

Without Newhook, the Eagles did not skip a beat. They opened up the season with a weekend sweep of the eventual Hockey East champion UMass. The Eagles outscored the Minutemen 10-6 across those two games even without their star forward.

This success continued into the following weekend’s domination of Providence. Not only did the Eagles’ offense come through, but Knight and the Eagles’ defense also shined in the series, shutting out the ranked Friars on both occasions. The second win of that weekend was a 9-0 blowout, which included two-goal games from both Trevor Kuntar and Boldy.  

For this Eagles’ offense, which tallied the nation’s second-best goals per game average with 3.9, multi-goal games seemed to occur just about every time the Eagles hit the ice. BC finished with three players within Hockey East’s top nine goal scorers.

Newhook’s Return Revives the Power Play

Newhook ended up suiting up once in January before suffering an injury that kept him out of the lineup for an additional month before making his return against BU on Feb. 5. Even though the Eagles were winning plenty of games without Newhook, their power play was suffering. Entering that weekend series against BU, the Eagles found themselves in the basement of Hockey East by power-play percentage. For a team so high in the standings, it was baffling to see that the Eagles were only converting on 8.3 percent of their power plays at the time.

Newhook’s return completely changed the fortune of the Eagles’ power-play unit. In just 11 games this season, Newhook scored four goals on the man advantage, which put him in a tie for fifth among Hockey East skaters. Although the Eagles still sat at ninth in Hockey East power-play rankings as the regular season and the Hockey East Tournament came to a close, the unit finally felt lethal again. 

In-State Dominance

Many fans believe that the greatest college hockey in the country is played in the state of Massachusetts, and the data backs it up. Three teams in the NCAA Tournament this year—BC, BU, and UMass—all hail from the Bay State. The Eagles took care of business against their in-state rivals all year long, finishing 9-3 in their twelve games against UMass, BU, Northeastern, UMass Lowell, and Merrimack.

Shorthanded? More Like Sure Handed

All year long, the Eagles’ penalty kill was one of their major strengths. Knight and his penalty killers were successful 85.9 percent of the time, which was second in Hockey East and seventh in the nation overall. As the Eagles look to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, the penalty kill success becomes exponentially more important as they face not only Hockey East’s best power-play units, but the best power-play units in the country.

Not only were they successful in killing off penalties, but the Eagles also scored the most shorthanded goals in the nation for the second season in a row. The Eagles finished with eight goals while a man down, three more than any other team. Even though they may be a man down, the Eagles are aggressive on the penalty kill and will punish their opponents should they make a mistake on the man advantage.

De Facto League Title

Since so many games this season were canceled, postponed, and moved around due to positive COVID-19 test results, each team in Hockey East played a different number of games. To combat this issue, Hockey East unveiled the Hockey East Power Index (HEPI) to rank its teams. This “customized objective mathematical formula” was an alternative to the traditional points metric used every prior season.

The Eagles finished the season atop the HEPI, but Hockey East didn’t crown a regular season champion. BC would have finished as the regular season champion if the conference was decided by points (48) or points percentage (.762).

Late-Game Collapses

One issue that appeared for BC late on into the season was its tendency to go dormant offensively late in games and collapse defensively. This pattern began in the Eagles’ matchup against UMass on Feb. 26. In that game, the Eagles took a 2-0, second-period lead, but they fell 3-2 in overtime.  

Later on in the Hockey East quarterfinals, the Eagles let UNH trickle back in the second period to turn a convincing 3-0 lead into a nail-biting 3-2 win.   

The trend continued into the Eagles’ most heartbreaking loss of the season. In the Hockey East semifinals, the Eagles blew a 3-0 lead, and after giving up four third-period goals, they ultimately fell in double overtime, ending their hopes of their first conference title since 2012.

Coming into that semifinal game, the Eagles were 16-2-1 when scoring first. At the same time, across the final four games of its season, opponents outscored BC 7-4 in the third period and overtime. 

Waiting Game

Until early Thursday afternoon, it appeared that the Eagles would see the 47th edition of the Holy War on Ice this Saturday. Due to COVID-19 protocols, however, Notre Dame had to withdraw from the tournament, sending BC to the NCAA Regional Finals and making the Eagles just one win away from their first Frozen Four appearance since 2016. The No. 1 Eagles will await the winner of Saturday’s matchup between No. 2 St. Cloud State and No. 3 BU.

Because of the schools’ close proximity just down Commonwealth Ave., BC and BU have one of the most historic rivalries in college hockey. The teams split their two matchups this year, with the Eagles’ win coming on a goal by defenseman Drew Helleson with under one second on the overtime clock.

St. Cloud State, however, is a team that BC rarely faces. The team’s last matchup was in October of 2018. In that game, St. Cloud State thrashed the Eagles in a 7-0 blowout. In just four all-time meetings, BC is 1-3 against St. Cloud State.

Feature Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

Graphics by Nick Pulice / Heights Staff and Emma Healy / Heights Editor

March 26, 2021

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