With the way that the Boston College men’s hockey team’s schedule is set up, it’s easy to get caught up in the Hockey East. The last time that the Eagles played a game against a non-conference opponent, apart from a brief stint in the holiday tournament series in the Three Rivers Classic, was on Nov. 29, when BC was upset by Holy Cross.
That’s just how the scheduling works. The teams play all of their out of conference games in the beginning of the season, then move into conference play-it’s a clear contrast with the typical NCAA football schedule, in which the non-conference matchups are better dispersed throughout the season. Basically, for three months, the conferences are in their own worlds. Certain teams establish themselves as powerhouses along the way, but are rarely tested against their equivalents from other conferences beyond the first few games.
BC finished its non-Hockey East play on that low note, but since that day in November, the Eagles have pulled together a record of 16-3-2 against Hockey East teams, with all three of those losses coming within about two weeks of each other and all of them to Notre Dame-two during the opening round of the Hockey East tournament last weekend and one as the last game of the regular season.
For a while there, the Eagles were riding high as the kings of Hockey East. Johnny Gaudreau had his 31-game point streak, and linemates Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes came together with Gaudreau to form one of the most formidable trios in all of college hockey. Meanwhile, Thatcher Demko established himself as the sole starter of the team and racked up one of the NCAA’s highest save percentages behind a couple of freshmen who starred in defensive pairings.
It was easy to forget how the season, and non-conference play, started out.
The Eagles entered the season with their tag line already laid out-the team lost some big contributors in last year’s senior class but had what some were calling the best freshman class in all of college hockey. While nobody was sure exactly what to expect against Michigan, there were generally high hopes.
It didn’t work out in the opener. Eagles fans watched as the young team struggled to find its feet against a more established Michigan team. The final score was 3-1 in favor of the Wolverines.
The next high profile game was the home opener against Wisconsin. Conte Forum was full and loud, welcoming the Badgers and bringing up memories of the 2010 National Championship victory-the final game of which was played against Wisconsin.
Meeting the Badgers for the first time since that game, the Eagles looked like a firing squad. Fifteen different players contributed a point in the 9-2 win in which it appeared that everything that could have gone wrong did for the Wisconsin club.
Maybe it was luck. Maybe BC’s offense had Wisconsin’s seasoned defense figured out just right. Whatever it was, it didn’t last. Faced with its next Big 10 foe-the future conference champion Minnesota-the Eagles were forced down from the high that came with dominating Wisconsin as they failed to win either game, tying the first and losing the second 6-1.
And that was effectively the end of it. While there were a couple more non-conference matchups to come, none of them held the same competition as that first stint against Big 10 programs. For the last four months, Hockey East has played in its corner while the Big 10 played in its own.
While the Eagles bullied the other Hockey East teams, Minnesota did something similar, racking up a 14-3-3 Big 10 record and heading into the first ever Big 10 tournament as the top seed.
The Golden Gophers, who took over the No. 1 national ranking from the Eagles after BC’s final regular season loss to Notre Dame two weekends ago, may win their conference tournament, and they may make a first round exit like the Eagles, but that doesn’t matter.
What will matter is when BC comes face to face with a top-notch non-conference team for the first time since October, likely in the NCAA quarterfinal round. It’s not just the Big 10 opponents that the Eagles have to look out for. Teams like Union, Ferris State, Quinnipiac, and even Wisconsin have been building their resumes in their own conference schedules. While it was easy to let them do their thing during the regular season, casually watching their names move in and around the top 10, the Eagles and their fans could have a rude awakening when they step outside of the Hockey East bubble and onto the even bigger stage.
Sure, the Eagles are a very different team from the last time they faced a Big 10 opponent, but all of the time for growth that BC has had this year has also benefitted their competitors.
With the schedule pushing all of the high profile non-conference games to the beginning of the season, dominant teams emerge in each of the major conferences without the respective powers ever being tested against each other after the first few weeks of the season. With very limited television coverage and such a regional focus in the media-Boston news outlets only providing updates on Hockey East, if they cover college hockey at all-it is as though the teams exist in completely different leagues for the better part of the season.
Right now, within the safe boundaries of the Hockey East bubble, it would be easy to brush off a couple of losses to Notre Dame-write the Irish off as a weak spot for the Eagles, say that Demko had a bad weekend and Steven Summerhays had a good one, and move on, feeling optimistic, even confident about the Eagles moving forward. In 11 days, however, that bubble will pop, bringing in opponents who can no longer be overlooked, and a new, even bigger set of bumps, and very possibly even roadblocks, on the way to a national championship.