The Thin Blue Line
Injuries, Inexperience Test BC Defense
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. With three freshman defensemen figuring into the starting lineup, the blue line was rightfully a concern for Boston College coach Jerry York prior to the season. Despite the unquestioned talent of the group, it's never an easy responsibility — jumping from prep or junior leagues into top flight college hockey on the blue line.
Through the first half, Michael Matheson, Colin Sullivan and Teddy Doherty earned their playing time as much as a lack of depth thrust it upon them. The group experienced its issues, of course, but few involved with the Eagles' machine expressed anything less than satisfaction with the young trio. Even when Isaac MacLeod suffered a shoulder injury, shelving him for last week's Mariucci Classic, most assumed BC would weather this minor storm and head into the second half with a reliable defensive unit.
"(The freshmen are) really open to criticism," BC senior defensemen Patrick Wey said. "They've improved a lot because of that, and they worked really hard. They've gotten better within our system. It's like everyone else. They want to get better down the stretch, and I have nothing but confidence in that they'll continue to get better. They'll be rocks for us down the stretch."
Wey anticipates continued improvement from his teammates as the latter portion of the season approaches. About one week ago, however, that became a necessity. Senior defenseman Patch Alber tore his meniscus prior to BC's first game of the tournament in Minnesota. The unfortunate twist quickly changed that mindset. Without Alber and MacLeod for the pair of games, the Eagles' defensive unit struggled. Despite dispatching Alabama-Huntsville, 5-2, the Eagles fell, 8-1, to Minnesota in the championship game. The thunderous defeat shocked college hockey, and everyone in the BC dressing room.
Hardly indicative of the Eagles' overall level of the play, the loss quickly became a memory. Still, four freshmen dressed among the six BC defensemen on Friday — a 3-3 tie with Yale. Overall, the Eagles looked sloppy — Yale outshot BC 48-22 — and its defensemen were among the most culpable. Turnovers on breakout passes, blown coverages and bad penalties highlighted the group's struggles against Yale.
Matheson, the most talented of BC's young defensemen, was ejected from the game after an elbow to the head of Yale's Kenny Agostino as the second period ended. On the major penalty, York, dealing with Alber's absence already, opted not to use Doherty, Sullivan or Travis Jeke, who filled in for Alber. Instead, it was forwards Kevin Hayes and Steven Whitney on the blue line against the Yale power play. MacLeod played with Whitney, and Wey played with Hayes. The move worked, and the Eagles avoided allowing a late go-ahead goal to the Bulldogs.
"With Matheson out, we were really shorthanded back there," York said. "Patch and Matheson have killed a lot of penalties for us. We were down to three freshmen. Two haven't killed many penalties all year in Travis and Colin. Five minutes is a long stretch to play. (Hayes and Whitney) are versatile players, though. They can handle it."
Whitney and Hayes are experienced, skilled forwards. York rightfully trusts them in most roles. Regardless, the situation painted a potentially rough picture for BC as the season advances. The rest of the year will play out with four freshmen in uniform for the Eagles on defense. Whether or not York's faith in situations similar to Friday's grows is unknown at this juncture.
"It's certainly a work in progress," he said. "We're certainly going to have to see improvement from Colin Sullivan, Travis Jeke and Teddy Doherty and continued play from Mike Matheson. Those are going to be the keys. Isaac MacLeod's back. His shoulder is healed. With Isaac and Pat Wey, as a junior and a senior, they're going to have to log a lot of minutes for us."
Wey and MacLeod will see substantial ice time for BC, as the Eagles look for fourth consecutive Beanpot and Hockey East championships. York's telescope, as it always is, is fixed on another trophy to be handed out in Pittsburgh three months from now. Even with a more difficult task presented due to Alber's injury, that mindset won't change.
"We're going to be relied on to play a lot of minutes and be relied upon in different situations," Wey said. "We just have to focus on making high percentage plays and avoid getting too complicated. When you play that much, you just need to simplify things. We have a bigger role with Patch gone, but we're up for the challenge. We still want to be a team that plays for championships."
Should the Eagles advance that far, Alber will likely be healed from his injury. Getting there without him, however, will be a difficult proposition. Beyond that, the blow is especially troubling given Alber's work to become one of the Eagles' regular defensemen. As a recruited walk-on, Alber played sparingly as a freshman. His work led to more playing time and a full-time role as a sophomore and even greater responsibility these last two seasons.
"It's a tough break. He's out three months," York said. "We're hoping to get him back if we get to a regional. It's very difficult for him to get back here in uniform. He's going to try it. He's a recruited walk-on that came on and really had a big influence in our success over the last couple years. We're going to miss him."
The story isn't lost on his teammates. However, they've shifted their focus to the task at hand. Winning championships typically means overcoming injuries and other adversity. There are no excuses in Chestnut Hill, and the expectations haven't changed. York and his players expect to win a title. They know the requirements, and they'll work tirelessly to meet them. With one fewer upperclassman on the blue line, though, the charge of winning a championship with a young group of defensemen just got harder.