BU's Grzelcyk Honing Two-Way Excellence
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
BOSTON Boston University defenseman Matt Grzelcyk is a freshman. Even after two months as an NCAA hockey player, freshmen frequently display their inexperience. They misread plays or take chances that handicap their teams. The balance comes with time, knowing when to concede and play it safe — and when to try something.
Friday night, Grzelcyk tried something.
BU led beloved neighbors Boston College, 2-1, early in the third period. Grzelcyk picked up the puck in the neutral zone and took off. The 5-foot-9 blue liner darted through the zone, leading the play, while teammates flooded the net and BC players tracked back to minimize any damage. As quickly as he entered the zone, passing lanes disappeared. A more cautious defenseman may have pulled up, satisfied to start an offensive zone possession that may result in a chance. That isn't Grzelcyk's style. The shifty blue liner flew through the BC zone, as Eagle goaltender Parker Milner moved across his crease. Grzelcyk raced for the goal line and effortlessly turned, circled the net and tucked the puck inside the near corner. Everyone, including Milner, in Agganis Arena Friday night knew Grzelcyk's intentions. But not a soul could stop him.
The puck slid into the net just as Milner reached the far post. The goal gave BU a 3-1 lead and sent the sellout crowd on hand for this latest Battle of Commonwealth Avenue into a frenzy.
"All of our defensemen played well. Obviously Grzelcyk, I thought that was the biggest goal of the game," BU coach Jack Parker said. "(BC) made it 2-1, and they started grinding away at us. Then Matt gets us the two-goal lead right back."
Grzelcyk's performance with the U.S. National Team Development program warranted a place at Boston University and his selection by the Boston Bruins in last June's NHL Draft. His display of skill Friday night showed the world what Parker saw, and Grzelcyk's teammates weren't exactly surprised either.
"Twelve games into the year, Grzelcyk has played phenomenal for us," BU junior defenseman Garrett Noonan said. "We're all happy for him. His offense gets the attention, but he's a solid defenseman and getting better."
The adjustment from junior or prep hockey to the Division I level is often most difficult for defensemen. Those blessed with the skills to create offense often find these challenges even more daunting. Opponents are faster, smarter and stronger, and a single false step can lead to odd-man rushes, chances and goals before a player realizes he's made a mistake.
Noonan understands these challenges. An offensively inclined defenseman himself, Noonan learned the hard way as a freshman as he became one of the league's best on the blue line. Even for a player as gifted as Grzelcyk, Noonan knows, the transition isn't an easy one. That hasn't stopped BU's newest two-way star from contributing.
"I remember myself and Adam Clendening, it took us awhile to get used to college hockey," Noonan said. "You have to use your head and make smart plays. That has come for Matt. I think just listening to the older guys. Coming to the rink before practice and sticking around afterward and listening to coaches helps. Eventually, the understanding comes."
Grzelcyk entered Friday's game with a goal and nine assists to his credit. Before his remarkable tally gave BU a 3-1 lead, his dynamic passing created multiple scoring chances for his teammates. While these efforts were either negated by Milner or fluttered a touch off the mark, everyone at Agganis Arena Friday night felt Grzelcyk's presence before he put them in awe.
Paired with fellow two-way freshman defenseman Ahti Oksanen, Grzelcyk was among BU's best players. The key for Grzelcyk and other first-year players is forgetting the risk. Preparing for games and gradually becoming a smarter player eliminates the questions. At this point, Grzelcyk knows when to join — or create — a rush. Worrying about mistakes or a scolding from upperclassmen inhibits development and prevents talented players from impacting games as they can.
"He's got something that most people just don't have," Noonan said. "He knows how to make plays and, more importantly, when to make them. He's got free reign to go out and do what he can. I always tell him to do his thing. He has skills that are pretty impressive, and we can't hold him back."
Across the ice Friday night, a similarly talented group of first-year defensemen impressed as well. While none had the impact Grzelcyk did this time around, BC's Mike Matheson, Colin Sullivan and Teddy Doherty have Jerry York and others at the Heights excited about a potentially dominant defensive group.
Friday night belonged to Boston University, though. The Terriers picked up an impressive win over their nemesis, which entered the night riding a 10-game winning streak. On Nov. 11, the Eagles defeated BU, 5-2, at Agganis, and the teams close their regular-season series Saturday night at Conte Forum.
Friday's two points keep the Terriers in third place in Hockey East behind the Eagles and second-place New Hampshire. In conference play, BU is 6-3-0, with all three of its defeats at the hands of either BC or UNH. Meanwhile, its lone non-conference loss came during a weekend split with North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Proving they can beat Boston College was critical to BU at this juncture in the season. The talent gulf between the teams is negligible, and BU believes it can compete for league and national championships. Friday night cemented that thought, and it was Grzelcyk's goal that put BU in control of yet another close game between two of college hockey's flagship programs.
Saturday night brings another challenging battle with the defending champions of everything. Getting that first big league win is something the Terriers can build on as the first half of the season winds down. It takes a solid team effort to defeat the nation's best. However, these games often require individual brilliance as well. And, as Grzelcyk showed his teammates on Friday, sometimes those moments of personal excellence simply come down to trying something.