Eagles Fall Despite Early Goal
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
PHILADELPHIA One of the stats that always seems to come up in hockey is who scores first. Teams that score first tend to win, as you might imagine, so scoring first is very important indeed.
Hockey being the low-event game it is, every goal significantly increases a team's chance of winning, and a goal scored in say, the first 10 minutes of any given game is important because there is at least some amount of likelihood that the team which scored it isn't going to relinquish the lead it established. In Boston College's recent runs to the NCAA title, the stat that's so often cited is how infrequently they trailed anyone in the previous ludicrous number of games. It was always something like 45 seconds over 14 games. Deadly efficient, really. They got a lead, got their hooks in, and choked the life out of the game.
That's more or less what happened for the vast majority of this year. Much has obviously and correctly been made of the way in which the Eagles, once they really established themselves after an iffy first month or so, ripped apart most of their competition only to falter somewhat down the stretch (1-2-1 in four games before the tournament), but that same deadly efficiency was there this campaign again.
It failed them Thursday night, however. This was just the third game of the year in which the Eagles scored first and didn't come out with the W. That it happened on this stage didn't seem to matter very much, because if they'd gone up 6-0 and lost they would feel a similar sting. When the result is that much of an outlier, it is a little shocking.
Of course, of course of course of course, it was Johnny Gaudreau who staked his team to that essential first lead of the night. That was his eighth game-opening goal of the season, tying him for the team lead with (you guessed it) Kevin Hayes, as well as the national lead shared with Hayes and Rensselaer's Ryan Haggerty. As with Union's bullheaded proficiency in this regard in its regional, and along the same lines as his own versus Denver, it took him all of two shifts and 128 seconds to make the difference in the scoreline.
"We always want a strong start no matter who it is we're playing, but Union's a tough defensive team so we knew we were going to have come out and bury a couple quick ones on them," said Gaudreau, who did his part for his NCAA-leading 36th goal. "We got a quick one, and held them for the first period, and then we kind of slowed down there in the second. I wish we would have kept moving our feet a little bit more."
To a man, the BC players said they thought Union really dictated things in that opening 20, which perhaps speaks to why such a rare comeback was allowed to happen. While there is perhaps too great an importance placed on scoring first from a narrative standpoint, these are two teams that seem to thrive in such situations.
"Coach is always harping on a quick start, get the momentum going in our favor," said captain Patrick Brown. "Our first line has been doing that for us all year, and they did it again in this game. ... We knew they were going to come out hard, and we got off to a good start by going up a goal, but they dominated that first five minutes besides that goal."
It's worth noting that Boston College is a team that has grown accustomed to scoring first. In their 39 games before this one, they opened the scoring in 25, good for a tie for sixth in the country with Massachusetts-Lowell and Bowling Green. As one might imagine, when they've been able to do that, they've been incredibly successful. Going 21-2-2 in such games, coming into this national semifinal, gave them the best winning percentage of the top 10 teams in the country in this regard (an astonishing .880). Their only losses in such a situation, apart from tonight, were both to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals, which was basically the team which matched up against them as well as anyone probably could. They also tied Lowell and Brown (2-2 and 3-3, respectively) when scoring first.
The potential problem for the Eagles was that their competition in this game scored first more frequently (29 times, second in the country), and had the second-best winning percentage when doing so (24-3-2, .862). Moreover, while the Eagles had only scored first in each of their three previous games, Union successfully did so in nine straight, all of which they won.
One of Union's biggest assets in this tournament so far was to throw a heavy yoke over their opponents' necks nice and early in the proceedings. Against Providence, Mat Bodie drew first blood just 2:42 into the first period. Against Vermont, it took Matt Hatch just 4:15 to open his team's account shorthanded. Even without the goal, there was more of the same tonight.
"Well yeah you always want to get the first goal but we’ve played down before, it doesn’t matter if we score first or not, we’re going to play the same game," said Union wing Mike Vecchione. "I think it came pretty early. I think they scored two minutes in so we kind of were running around, but once we settled down in the second and third, we were playing our game.”
During long stretches of the regular season, Jerry York hadn't really used his top line as his starters against a lot of teams. Maybe he didn't see much of a point, given how they'd have a good long time to pull at the seams of any given opponent's defensive systems. In the NCAA tournament, though, he allowed himself no such luxury, starting Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold and Johnny Gaudreau against both Denver and Lowell. They rewarded him straight away in the first game, scoring just 25 seconds in and quickly establishing the game as a laugher. Against Lowell, it took a little longer (12:57) as the River Hawks pushed back more heavily throughout that opening period, but Kevin Hayes broke through eventually and established something in what wound up being a wilder affair.
"You want to set the tone every game," said Bill Arnold. "Go out there, get a strong start, get a goal, and we were able to do that, but they dictated the terms during the first period after we scored that goal."
Both these teams, with the Nos. 1 and 2 offenses and fourth- and ninth- best defenses in the country, invite teams to try them. Go punch for punch and see what happens. More often than not the challengers are counting the lights before too long. But in this clash of heavyweights, the eagerness to land that first decisive blow became all too important. Union's winning percentage drops to .667 in the 12 games in which they concede first. Still pretty high, really.
Maybe it says something about the way in which Union, which rarely lets much time pass between conceding and scoring again, has been able to pick itself up relatively quickly – throughout these three games they always answered goals against with goals for, to the point that Patrick Brown's goal with 4.2 seconds left was the only time they hadn't scored last in the tournament – and do this. Maybe BC, having gone through this three times since the postseason began, and none prior to that, just stopped being able to get away with riding the percentages. Not that it really matters much now.
"Every team, I feel, in this tournament has that ability to bounce back after they're down," said Isaac MacLeod. "They obviously showed it a little more than we did tonight."