Gaudreau’s offense will be essential
Tommy Meloro | Heights Staff
It’s no secret that Thatcher Demko didn’t have the best Hockey East quarterfinals, posting a .833 save percentage in three games against Notre Dame. But as Boston College moves forward toward the NCAA Tournament, it’s not imperative for Demko to pitch a shutout in every round for BC to advance. It’ll be up to the Eagles’ offense to produce in a way that it was unable to do in the Hockey East Tournament, and the player that will be most crucial in that endeavor is Johnny Hockey himself-Johnny Gaudreau.
Let’s say that as the NCAAs begin, Demko looks like he did against Notre Dame-he lets up an early soft goal, looks tentative in net, and gives up a backbreaking late goal in the first period. If that’s the case, what can BC head coach Jerry York do? York isn’t stuck playing his freshman goaltender. Sitting on the end of his bench, York has a veteran whom he deemed able to compete with Demko for the starting job throughout most of the first half of the year before Demko simply took over. Brian Billett-who went 12-3-1, had a .920 save percentage, and let up an average of 2.42 goals per game-hasn’t started in net since Feb. 15 against Vermont, when he backstopped the Eagles to the Hockey East regular season title. Don’t let that lack of action fool you, though-if York had to, he could make the switch in the one-and-done format, and Billett has proved capable of keeping BC close in almost any game.
On the offensive side of the puck, the Eagles are obviously a deep team, with three of the nation’s top six scorers on their first line. On any given night, the energy that drives an average of 4.05 goals per game can come from any given player. BC has a number of different ways it can score-its tape-to-tape passing is beautiful to watch, its third and fourth lines work hard near the crease, and the power play excels at spreading the ice and finding space to work. Yet, in BC’s past four games, Notre Dame jammed up BC’s offense, holding the Eagles to just nine scores and an average of 2.25 goals per game.
The blueprint for how to beat BC wasn’t anything new-the Irish simply clogged up the middle of the ice, were physical along the boards, and utilized a ferocious transition offense to overwhelm the Eagles. What was different from other teams is that Notre Dame, despite being the eight seed in the Hockey East, is a talented, senior-laden team with a goaltender who plays out of his mind, Steven Summerhays. Not many other teams that BC played this year had all of those characteristics, but in the NCAAs, that won’t be the case. Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Union are just three of the teams that could stand in the way of the Eagles’ quest for star number six, and all are talented enough to knock off BC, except in one case-and that case’s name is Johnny Hockey.
Gaudreau is the best player in college hockey today. His vision on the ice is impeccable, his speed uncatchable, and his skill unparalleled. When Gaudreau is on his game, his presence changes the complexion of the entire game. If teams attack Gaudreau, he dishes to the open teammate, and if they back off and give him space, he makes defenders and goalies look downright silly with his vast array of skill moves. Against Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals, Gaudreau had one night when the Fighting Irish were unable to contain him-the game BC won 4-2, with Gaudreau involved in all four goals. In Notre Dame’s two wins, Gaudreau tallied just one point-an assist on Patrick Brown’s goal in the third period of Game One to make the score 7-2.
Demko is an important part of BC’s run to Philadelphia, make no mistake, but he is also a replaceable part. Billett is a perfectly capable backup, able to step in at a moment’s notice should Demko look like he is faltering. Gaudreau, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. At the top of his game, there is no team in the nation able to contain both him and the rest of the Eagles’ offense. If Gaudreau is at his best for the four games starting March 28, the Eagles will hoist that trophy, no matter who might stand in their way. In a tournament wherein the team with the most skill generally comes out on top, the most skillful individual in college hockey needs to come through for the Eagles.
Demko will need to step up in goal
The old saying holds true across every major sport. One would be hard-pressed to find a championship team at any level that lacked a lights-out defensive unit.
In hockey, one of the most important positions on the ice is goaltender. Whereas a strong offensive attack can sneak a team into the postseason, the goalie pulls his team through the Frozen Four.
Now, the youngest team in the country has to rely on the youngest player in the country to take it to the biggest stage in its sport. That team is Boston College, and that player is Thatcher Demko.
After starting the year in a platoon role splitting time with junior Brian Billet, Demko took over the starting job midway through the season and blossomed into the No. 1 goalie prospect that many experts project him to be.
He faltered in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Notre Dame, though, getting pulled in Game One and giving up numerous soft goals. This can’t be a cause for concern, though, as it is the first time Demko has truly slumped as a collegiate athlete.
The conference quarterfinals took place in three straight days and Demko started each of the three games, giving him a workload that he had not yet experienced at BC. Demko started in two games on consecutive days just once this season in a doubleheader against UMass-Lowell. The layoff between now and the NCAA tournament could prove to be the best thing for the freshman, as he can use the time off to rejuvenate and refocus himself.
The good news for Demko is that BC will not have to play on three consecutive days again-the worst that would happen is two games back-to-back in the regional rounds of the tournament.
There are generally 18 skaters (12 forwards, six defensemen) on a team, each of them with the ability to score. Only one player at a time, however, can play goalie.
If Johnny Gaudreau is having an off night, chances are that any one of BC’s countless offensive weapons will step up to fill the void. Johnny Hockey is the Eagles’ offensive motor, but plenty of other players are more than capable of converting chances on their own.
With Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold among the top six in scoring in the country, and the Ryan Fitzgerald, Patrick Brown, and Austin Cangelosi line starting to contribute more often offensively, goal scoring should not be BC’s primary concern.
Although he’s struggled as of late, it can’t be forgotten that Demko is still statistically one of the best goalies in Division I hockey. Demko is 14th in goals-against average, despite the fact that he did not play in many of BC’s “gimme” games earlier in the season, including contests against Bowling Green, Penn State and Army. He is one of three freshmen in the top 15, but the two other freshmen are already 21 years old.
Furthermore, as the youngest player in college hockey, Demko is allowed to experience growing pains. While they might have been ill timed, Demko’s challenges against Notre Dame are no indication of how he will fare in the upcoming tournament.
With the 2014 NHL Draft just a few months away, Demko will not get a better chance than the one he’s been given to prove his worth to professional teams. People will be watching, and a standout performance could seriously affect his potential draft stock. Expect his level of play to increase as he approaches the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, the location of the finals and the building in which he hopes to hear his name called in late June.
Although Demko hasn’t been nearly as solid as he has in the past, he is far from the only issue heading into postseason play. BC’s defensive corps have not done much to cover for Demko, often leaving opposing forwards uncovered as they stare down a wide-open net.
On multiple occasions against Notre Dame, BC gave up goals in the last 10 seconds of a period, leaving Demko hanging out to dry.
Although goal scoring and setting the tone offensively are important, Gaudreau doesn’t have to be the player to do it. In fact, the Eagles might be better off receiving additional production from people not named Gaudreau, Hayes and Arnold. But there can only be one goalie, and Demko is the best one on the Eagles’ roster. His play, and the play of the defense as a whole, will be the key for the Eagles to make a run in the NCAA tournament.