Johnny Gaudreau, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound forward many call the best college hockey player in the nation, is wearing black leggings and sitting on a couch surrounded by his teammates, casually picking at his younger brother Matt’s hair in a fashion similar to that of a caring gorilla.
For the moment, the Boston College men’s hockey team has traded skates, pads, and pucks for towels, flip flops, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Gaudreau and his teammates are relaxed and joking around in the locker room, and head coach Jerry York is beaming, because the worst of the waiting is over-despite recent struggles, BC is still a one seed.
Now, BC waits to learn the name of its opponent. As the selection show kicks into gear, the mood is dampened slightly for a brief moment. Low, hushed murmurs snake across the room as Notre Dame’s name is called on ESPN-outscored 13-8 in three games and ushered out of the Hockey East Tournament by the Irish, last weekend’s failure is not far from the players’ thoughts.
The atmosphere lightens up again within seconds, and soon enough, it’s BC’s turn. Kevin Hayes claps his hands and the room collectively focuses on the TV as the name is read aloud: Denver.
The last time one of York’s teams played Denver was Oct. 14, 2011-Gaudreau had scored only one collegiate goal, and Parker Milner was the man guarding the net for the Eagles. Things have changed a lot since that loss to the Pioneers in Conte Forum. BC has another star on the back of its jerseys, Gaudreau’s goal tally has reached a whopping 74 scores, and rookie Thatcher Demko has emerged as the heir to Milner’s pipes. Heading into Worcester on Saturday afternoon, BC’s goal is simple: beat the Pioneers and stay alive.
“I’m just trying to do whatever it is to help my team win,” Gaudreau said on Sunday. “Whether it’s offense, defense, I’ve gotta work on the little things to make sure that we get past the regionals and get to Philly.”
Helping his team win will mean getting the better of Sam Brittain, Denver’s senior goaltender, who boasts a .932 save percentage, a 2.11 goals-against average and is ranked as the country’s 12th best goalie-one place above Demko. On the other end of the ice, BC’s defensemen and backchecking forwards will need to contend with a host of offensive threats. Whereas BC’s offense is certainly not limited to-but fairly concentrated around-the heralded Gaudreau-Bill Arnold-Hayes line, the Pioneers’ weapons are very spreadout: only one player has scored more than 30 points this season, but nine have collected 20 or more. Trevor Moore has set the Pioneers’ pace with 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points.
Heading into the tournament, York said BC’s struggling fourth line will see fewer minutes. “We basically play three lines through our regionals, through the Frozen Four,” York said. “We’re trying to look for a fourth line that can really check, you know, win that game with their shifts and give us seven to eight solid minutes, but we haven’t come up with that pairing yet, those three guys.”
York did say, however, that Matt Gaudreau-despite playing in five of BC’s games, scoring only one goal over the course of the season, and at one point not dressing for 17 consecutive games-will have a spot on the fourth line.
“He just had a great week of practice, he’s kind of jumped at us, you know he’s been on the cusp all year long, knocking at the door, and we’re gonna give him a chance,” York said.
Last season, a BC team bent on repeating as national champions drew Union in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and was listlessly obliterated in a 5-1 massacre of a game. This Saturday, the Eagles will look to avoid a repeat of 2013’s one-and-done performance. According to York, BC’s biggest challenge is simply being better than Denver.
“They are a hot team, they’re playing well, and arguably have probably the best goaltender that we’ll face this year in the Brittain boy, but whoever you play in the national tournament is a big challenge because, like I said, there’s no lousy teams left now,” York said. “They’ve earned the right to get there.”