Team of the Week: Boston College
After a 1-5-1 start, it was easy for many to write off Boston College this season.
Let's put aside the fact that many want to hate on Boston College — that is typical sports fan human nature for any organization, team or program that has a lot of success over a relatively short span. In Boston College's case, four national titles in a 13-year stretch, a zillion Frozen Fours, people get sick of you (looking at you, Patriots).
But nevermind that. Just look at how Boston College's roster has been gutted of blue chip talent in the last few years. Seven — seven — players from BC's 2016 Frozen Four team are playing in the NHL already. Then, you have much greater competition for some of those blue chippers from neighbor Boston University in recent years, and BC didn't have as many at-the-ready replacements as it was used to.
So taking a season or two to regroup should have been more than understandable, certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
And then something happened. The Eagles won seven in a row, including the last four on the road, capped off by last weekend's sweep of New Hampshire and Northeastern. That earns BC the CHN Team of the Week.
"Throughout the summer we were looking at, 'Here's what we have, how are we going to develop into a better team,'" Boston College coach Jerry York said. "So we've seen some really terrific improvement from some of our even returning players, especially the three captains. ... Michael Kim and Casey Fitzgerald are as good as any (defense) tandem in the country. And Chris Brown is becoming a real factor for us. I think we were good, we just didn't have experience. And I think you need experience to become a better team. We gained it pretty good from the schedule we played, so I feel good about that."
As York alluded to, it should be pointed out that the 1-5-1 start came against a schedule comprised of some of the best teams in the country — two road losses at St. Cloud State, which is at least a top three team; a loss to defending champs Denver, albeit an ungly 6-1 loss at home; a home loss to Wisconsin; and a tight loss at Providence.
"We never would've seen that (improvement) if we just played some popcorn teams early," York said. "It exposed our flaws and we're better for it. At this juncture in my career I'm not trying to save my job by playing (weak) teams to go 5-0."
While the obvious blue chippers are not there for the Eagles' incoming class, two prototypical BC freshmen are making an immediate impact. Logan Hutsko and Christopher Grando are both 5-foot-10, and they are the team's top two scorers so far. They are helping ease the plan of losing what was probably their best prospect, Eeli Tolvanen, who didn't pass the NCAA's Clearinghouse.
"Our team is really playing well as a team," York said. "All three zones we've been getting better at. I love (that) we're playing with much more cohesiveness. When you start 1-5-1, you say, 'Here are our weaknesses guys, look at them and let's build on our weaknesses.' Even in that stretch we had some good strengths to our game and we reinforced them, but we really concentrated on the mistakes we were making, the penalties we were taking. So we've kinda chipped away."
BC only has five draft picks on its roster, the lowest since the early 2000s. And even at that point, they had a first rounder like Brian Boyle. Now, none of the five drafted players were taken higher than the 3rd round. By comparison, two years ago, there were 12 drafted players on the roster, including six selected in the first two rounds.
The combination of a young team and no blue chippers might not be the recipe for NCAA success down the road, we don't know. There's only one senior on the roster, and he's only played five games. There's only four juniors — Fitzgerald and Kim on defense, Christopher Brown and JD Dudek at forward. It's good to have those program guys, but it usually isn't enough.
But the idea that BC was going to roll over this year and go away for a while, looks at this point to be greatly exaggerated. After four close wins, BC blew out Vermont two weekends ago, 5-1. That was followed up with a 3-2 win against UNH, with Kim scoring the game's last two goals.
"Guys are pulling together and trying to get better every day in practice," York said. "We could show some highlights against Wisconsin, St. Cloud, Quinnipiac — this is pretty good stuff. But we weren't sustaining it for 60 minutes. I like the makeup of the club, the personality, our team spirit. It's underrated by a lot of people. They look at how many all-Americans we have, how many Hobey (finalists). You need some of those guys for sure, but the team aspect is critical.
"Early in the season we took a lot of penalties. So we're learning to play with referees. We've adapted to it. We're not reaching and grabbing, we're skating."
Against Northeastern, BC had just two minor penalties and only one power-play against. Jesper and Julius Mattila each scored as the Eagles built a 4-0 lead with three quick third-period goals, and won 4-1.
"Every aspect of our game, whether it's faceoffs or forecheck, our neutral zone play, there's nothing we have that we're not going to work on," York said. "Most hockey people know Northeastern is one of the best teams in the country. This is by far (Northeastern coach Jim Madigan's) best team at Northeastern. He has a lot of weapons. Their first two lines are really difficult to contain. With that measuring stick, I really like the way we played."