Going into the third period, the Eagles were in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable position. Only Johnny Gaudreau’s goal separated the nation’s top offense from one of the nation’s top defenses in a tight, physical matchup with both goalies making save after save. It was a situation that the Eagles weren’t used to, but it was one that they thrived in.
The Boston College men’s hockey team has the most productive offense in all of Division I college hockey through 31 of its 34 regular season games. Led by the prolific Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold line, which has combined for a total of 62 goals so far this season, the Eagles have scored an average of 4.34 goals per game.
On Friday night, however, the nation’s best offense came head to head with UMass Lowell, whose 1.97 goals allowed per game comes in at a three-way tie for first in the nation. The defensive prowess would show, as the Eagles were held to just one goal through the first two periods. In the third, though, BC opened it up in a more characteristic style, and with help from Thatcher Demko’s shutout, the Eagles came away with their 25th win of the season by a final score of three goals to none.
“I thought tonight may have been as solid an effort for 60 minutes, from the goaltending to the defense to the forwards, that we’ve had this year,” said head coach Jerry York.
Both teams came out guns blazing in the first period, with the Eagles firing off a total of 19 shots, 14 of which went on goal to challenge Riverhawk goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. UMass Lowell came in just behind BC with 16 shots, 11 on goal.
Hellebuyck was the only net minder to falter, however, when Gaudreau took a no-angle shot to the right from a position next to the left post. The shot hit Hellebuyck in the shoulders, bouncing back for a power play goal and giving the Eagles the 1-0 lead. The goal extended Gaudreau’s point streak to 27 games.
“The first goal was an incredible play by Johnny Gaudreau,” York said. “I think he was almost on the goal line. Then to go top shelf, short side-that’s unbelievable skill.”
The Riverhawks kept pressuring on defense, though, as Gaudreau’s goal came off of one of the only shots in the first two periods from inside the triangle in front of the net between the goal and the two faceoff circles. Of 29 attempted shots by the Eagles in the first two frames of play, just three were from deep in the zone. With UMass Lowell dominating in front of the net, the Eagles were forced to take shots from further out, giving Hellebuyck and the rest of the Riverhawks time to stop all but one through 40 minutes of play.
“We had to earn our goals,” York said. “They don’t give you many chances.”
On the other end, Demko faced his fair share of shots as well, amassing 33 saves on the way to his second shutout as an Eagle. He also had a lot of help from the BC defense, which blocked nine shots on the night.
“I thought all our D stepped up to the plate when we needed them,” Demko said. “I know it’s hard to do, and they just battled through it and they just played really strong throughout the entire game.”
As time went on and the margin stayed at just one goal, the game got more and more physical. Neither team is a stranger to the penalty box-the Riverhawks average 4.6 penalties per game, and the Eagles 5.3 per game-and this game was no exception as the Riverhawks were sent to the box on three occasions and the Eagles were penalized three times as well, one of them a five minute major when Isaac MacLeod earned a game misconduct for contact to the head.
“Issac’s probably our best penalty killer over the course of the season, you know, to kill a five minute major without our best PK guy … that was pretty impressive for us blocking shots and getting clears,” York said.
The nation’s best penalty kill came through on all three occasions for the Eagles, but the Riverhawks’ early penalty allowed for Gaudreau’s goal.
Going into the third period, though, it remained close. Just as it appeared that UMass Lowell’s defense was staving off BC, the floodgates opened up as they so often have this season, and BC’s depth showed with goals in quick succession from Adam Gilmour and Austin Cangelosi.
In the matchup of top defense vs. top offense, the Eagles had to fire on all cylinders but survived the test and left the evening with their 18th straight unbeaten game.
“We weren’t content to just play out the regular season and wait for the playoffs,” York said. “Let’s keep improving and let’s keep getting better.”