BU's Defense, Sometimes Overlooked, Has Been Every Bit the Team's Catalyst
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
In several days, the Terriers will return home to the TD Garden, skating underneath several championship banners with "Boston University" hanging across the bottom. It will be BU’s fifth, and possible sixth, trip to the Garden this season — after the Terriers skated for the Beanpot and Hockey East championship in that same building.
As they enter the Frozen Four, BU will bring the nation’s most feared line in Evan Rodrigues and Danny O’Regan, led by freshman marvel Jack Eichel and his nation-leading 67 points.
The resurgent offense helped BU claim 27 victories this season — its most since winning the national championship in 2009. But BU’s march back to Boston for the Frozen Four title wouldn’t have happened with the team’s young, but solid, blue line.
“I think it’s been huge honestly. Maybe I’m a little bit biased because I’m a defenseman, but I’d say it’s one of the biggest reasons why we’ve had so much success,” captain Matt Grzelcyk said.
“I think it’s no secret that we obviously have some pretty highly touted forwards and we have depth at the forward position. But for us, especially for the four D-men to play the way they have and be able to get the puck up to the forwards I think has been absolutely huge.”
The defense has played well this season, despite the inexperience of four freshmen defenders John MacLeod, Brandon Fortunato, Brien Diffley and Brandon Hickey. The four, along with Grzelcyk and Doyle Somerby, make up BU’s blueline.
“I really think that our defense has allowed us to have the year we’ve had. It has allowed us to get the puck out of our end a lot more cleanly than last year,” BU head coach David Quinn said. “We spend less time in our end because of the way our D can move the puck, because of the way they can skate. They do a good job defending.”
A defense-first attitude is important to Quinn, who spent several seasons patrolling the blueline for recently-retired Jack Parker. Quinn has a reputation for crafting strong defenses, and this season is no different.
It was Quinn, after all, was who the assistant coach and top recruiter for the 2009 national championship team that futured four current NHL players — Kevin Shattenkirk, David Warsofsky, Eric Gryba and Brian Strait. That list doesn't even include that year's Hobey Baker Award winner, Matt Gilroy, and — oh, yeah, rounding out the six-man unit — the guy who scored the game-winning OT goal in the championship game, Colby Cohen.
This group hasn't yet reached those lofty titles — yet.
“He basically wants to be a defense-first team and we know that good defense creates good offense,” MacLeod said. “If we take care of business in the defensive zone, that’s going to create chances for us offensively. The team’s done a great job and even the forwards, you [have] to complement them too, not just the defense. The forwards have contributed in great lengths in the defensive zone to help make the situation possible.”
MacLeod is one member of BU’s rookie class, one of the most anticipated freshmen groups in all of college hockey this season. Despite the pedigree of the incoming class, Quinn wasn’t sure if the defense would be so strong.
“I think you always hope but you never know,” Quinn said. “You’re dealing with kids that are young and you’re not sure how they’re going to react to college hockey or the setting or to the situation. It’s tough to judge at times. You always hope for the best, there’s a pretty big range of what not only a team is capable of but what every individual is capable of when you’re dealing with kids this age.”
Quinn laughed when thinking of the toughest challenge for his young defense. With four freshmen, including an all-rookie pairing of Hickey and Fortunato, experience is hard to find.
“They’ve all been thrown into the fire,” Quinn said. “They don’t have a lot of people to turn to back there. More times than not if they’re looking to their right or their left on the bench, they’re sitting next to a freshman who’s going through exactly what they’re going through.”
The rookies are part of a 10-member freshmen class, rendering BU the youngest team in the Frozen Four.
“Any time you have a bunch of freshmen coming in, people may always be skeptical about whether they can handle the big crowds or just the big games in general,” Grzelcyk said. “But I think they’ve done a great job of that so far and they’ve been really mature.”
Each freshman defender has seen consistent playing time. Hickey and Fortunato have skated in all 39 contests, while MacLeod missed four games and Diffley one.
“I think the biggest challenges that a young group of D core that we have are basically trying to be consistent day in and day out game in and game out,” MacLeod said.
“That was definitely a challenge at first, obviously some inexperience at first so we needed to make sure that we be consistent as possible so we can have success.”
Helping the young defense transition this season was captain Grzelcyk, who returned from a shoulder injury suffered last season. He has played in all 39 games this year, and has a career-high 37 points.
Grzelcyk has been paired with freshman MacLeod this season.
“Having him as our leader on the team is great but to have him especially as a defenseman as well so he can help us first hand, it’s even better,” MacLeod said.
Next to Grzelcyk, Somerby has the most defensive experience - leaving both players to lead the young defense.
“I may come down and get on [the freshmen], and I think those guys realize that [the freshmen] might be rattled. They do a great job of picking them up and explaining to the freshmen D that, listen to what we’re saying, not how we’re saying it,” Quinn said.
“At times coaches can get a little enthusiastic, I guess that’s a synonym for yelling. I think those two guys do a great job of managing the emotions of our freshmen.“
At the beginning of the season, Quinn felt the return of Grzelcyk plus the good end and potential for Somerby would be the foundation for BU’s defense.
“Guys have been bumped and bruised, but they’ve all remained relatively healthy all year,” Quinn said. “They’ve all been able to play through some growing pains and play through some down times, because as most freshman do, they struggle at times as all four of ours have. But they’ve been able to play through it, and when one guy wasn’t playing well the other guys picked him up. It’s allowed us to be pretty consistent throughout the year.”
Aside from leading the defense, Grzelcyk has been a catalyst for BU. His overtime goal gave the Terriers its 30th Beanpot, his second goal of that game. He has .95 points per game and recorded a career-high 11 game point streak this season.
“He’s improved his all around game,” Quinn said. “He defends incredibly well, he makes great decisions with the puck, his shot has improved dramatically in the last two years. His consistency has improved throughout the seasons.”
To balance the defense, Quinn paired Grzelcyk with MacLeod, a more physical defenseman. After spending the past two years with the NTDP, MacLeod has played in 35 games this year.
“When you’re as physical a defenseman as John is, you have a tendency to look for that big hit and at times it takes him out of the play,” Quinn said. “I think he’s done a much better job playing under control yet continuing to play physical.”
MacLeod played with Fortunato at the NTDP, and the pair won gold at the U18 World Championship. Fortuanto, who led the NTDP in scoring by a defenseman in both his U-18 and U-17 seasons, leads the Terrier blue line rookies with 18 points.
“Fortunato is just playing with a whole new level of confidence. … He’s moving the puck better, his shot’s improved,” Quinn said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for the way he defends. He stays on the D side of people and has a great stick.”
His partner, Hickey, leads the team in blocked shots. His 65 blocks since the New Year are most in the country.
“He defends really well, blocks shots, has as good a shot as there is in college hockey for a one-timer, gets the puck through,” Quinn said. “His puck skills have improved, he’s made better decisions and he’s played a smarter game.”
Diffley has played with Somerby, the team’s bruising blueliner. As a freshman last season, Somerby skated in 34 games. After a strong end to a rookie campaign, Somerby’s skating and physical play has improved.
“He’s become a lot more decisive in what he does,” Quinn said. “I thought when he did struggle last year and even at times this year he becomes very indecisive you know I think his physical play is improved, he’s really turned into a very good defenseman.”
Combined with goalkeeper Matt O’Connor, the Terrier defense has limited teams to 2.26 goals per game. BU has yet to surrender more than two goals per game in the NCAA tournament.
“I was really excited. I knew obviously [the freshmen] were pretty highly touted, and I was just excited to see how they were going to progress and grow as the year went on,” Grzelcyk said. “I think they’ve done a great job. All of them have stayed late in the weight room and really improved their strength so it’s really nice to se their hard work pay off and I think it’s been some of the biggest keys for our success this season.”