The Heights’ preview and predictions of this weekend’s best-of-three Hockey East Quarterfinal series between No. 9 Boston College and No. 17 Vermont at Kelley Rink.
Thirty-four games. Five months. One hell of a roller coaster ride on the USCHO poll.
“Unanticipated” is a good word to describe the 2014-15 season for the Boston College men’s hockey team. Many in the college hockey world had high expectations for the Eagles—perhaps too high for a team that lost three of the nation’s five top scorers from a season ago—bestowing upon them the lofty fourth slot on the preseason rankings.
BC got off to an uneven start, capped off by a four-game skid against Denver, Connecticut, Boston University, and Harvard, the first such streak for the Eagles in a decade. The slide caused head coach Jerry York’s team to fall under .500 and spiral down to the No. 19 spot in the polls. Yet when the calendar flipped to 2015, the Eagles were rejuvenated—the team scaled back to the No. 9 slot (No. 10 in the Pairwise Rankings). Sparked by freshmen Noah Hanifin, Alex Tuch, and Zach Sanford in a thrilling 4-2 victory over crosstown rival BU in mid-January, BC rocketed back into the national eye with a 11-4-2 record in the new year.
And now, after a 20-11-2 season—12-7-3 in Hockey East (HEA)—BC goes back to square one.
In the octofinals last week, the Catamounts faced off against the 10th-seeded University of Maine Black Bears in a three-game set at the Gutterson Fieldhouse. Vermont, the clear favorite, struggled in the series—although Maine has a middle-of-the-road offense, the Catamounts had problems putting away a Black Bears’ defense that allows 3.26 goals per game, 50th (out of 59 teams) in college hockey and the second-worst in HEA (UMass is at the bottom). Vermont and Maine split 4-2 contests before the Catamounts won the third game 3-2 in overtime.
Nevertheless, Vermont is not a team the Eagles can take lightly—the Catamounts are the No. 19 team in the nation. “They [the Catamounts] have our attention,” York said. “We want to stay focused on just this weekend—not the Garden, not Nationals. This is a key weekend for our club, I think.”
BC is matching up against a team that preys on its biggest weakness: special teams. The Catamounts are one of the country’s best overall teams—on the power play, on the penalty kill, or in accumulating penalties. Head coach Kevin Sneddon’s team is the fourth-least penalized team in the country (163 penalties for 329 minutes), the second-best in HEA (behind Merrimack) in penalty kill effectiveness (120-of-136, 88.5 percent), and third-best in HEA (behind BU and Northeastern) in power play scoring (29-of-141, 20.57 percent), per the USCHO website.
This could pose a problem for an Eagles team that struggles in both power play offense and keeping the fifth man on the ice. BC ranks 42nd in the country when having the man advantage, the fourth-worst clip in HEA, scoring only 20 goals in 133 chances (a 15.04 percentage). In addition, BC is the 24th-most penalized team, with 186 penalties for 399 minutes, the third-most in HEA. Although the Eagles’ defense remains sharp on the penalty kill—12th nationally, third in HEA behind Merrimack and Vermont, with 131 kills in 150 chances for an 87.3 percent clip—these other deficiencies may hurt them over the weekend.
Penalties have burned the Eagles in several games this season, most notably the opening round of the Beanpot against Northeastern. BC gave the Huskies six power play opportunities—NU capitalized on two of them, denying the Eagles a chance at a sixth consecutive Beanpot title. York noted that special teams are a crucial importance for his team heading into this weekend’s series. “The tendency in the playoffs is that they [the referees] don’t call many penalties,” York said. “When you get a power play or you get a penalty, you’ve got to be really on top of your game.”
Like the Eagles, the Catamounts are stacked on the blue line. Led by defenseman Mike Paliotta, Vermont ranks 12th nationally in defense, second-best in HEA (Providence leads) with 2.22 goals allowed on average per game (GAA). York believes the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect is the pivotal player on Sneddon’s team. “Well I think certainly their big defenseman Paliotta [is the key to the series],” York said. “He’s been their leader, he’s a fourth-year guy, and he’s got like 35 points, which is, in this day and age, it’s hard to get points. His physical presence is certainly a big factor for Vermont.”
BC’s strength also comes from its defensemen. The Eagles rank 17th in team defense—fourth in HEA—with 2.35 GAA. York’s blue line crew, especially Hanifin, Mike Matheson, and Ian McCoshen, plays huge a role for the team offensively as well. Routinely, BC’s forwards employ the defensemen in the attack, especially in 3-on-2 situations. Often these Eagles can join the attack late and add surprise shots from beyond the circles, once the forwards are set up in front of the net, adding a dangerous threat for BC’s offense. As for their physicality, York believes BC and UVM will go head-to-head defensively. “I would think more playoff hockey—tight, tight checking,” York said. “There’s not going to be a lot of offensive chances. I think a lot of teams play a little more close to the vest. I would expect a pretty good defensive battle.”
While amassing a 11-5-2 overall record with a 2.27 GAA and a .909 save percentage, Hoffman is just 0-3-1 against four of the teams remaining in the HEA Tournament. He allowed three goals each to BU (25 saves in 43:02 on Jan. 23) and Providence (18 saves in 29:39 on Nov. 14), not to mention a game-winning goal by Tuch in only 26:49 on Valentine’s Day. Much of his wins came early in the season, when Vermont was at its hottest—meanwhile, he hasn’t played since that game against BC.
The Eagles should expect to see Santaguida throughout the series, which should cause York’s forwards to rejoice. In 24 games, Santaguida compiled a 9-8-2 record, seventh in the league in GAA (1.93) and also has a .927 save percentage. Like his team, which has struggled in the new year, Santaguida has been more down-to-earth in HEA play: 5-6-2 with a 2.24 GAA. Some of his worst performances have come against HEA’s better teams: he’s 2-4-1 against teams remaining in the tournament (he also gave up four goals to NU).
Go even deeper, and those two wins aren’t even impressive feats: the first came against Providence on Nov. 15, in the middle of UVM’s hot streak. Granted, the second came against BC, but it was on one of the Eagles’ most pitiful offensive performances of the year. He also faltered in the stretch in that game by allowing Tuch to score a game-tying goal with only seconds remaining. He then followed up that performance with an embarrassing one the next day, also against BC, when he allowed five goals with only 18 saves in 30 minutes. In total, he has given up 2.57 goals in these decisions.
By contrast, BC goaltender Thatcher Demko is all kinds of hot right now. His HEA play has been in line with his overall season performance—12-7-3, 2.1682 GAA (a little under his overall season average of 2.1814) and a .924 save percentage. Demko struggled against HEA’s top teams—BU, Providence, UMass-Lowell, and Notre Dame—compiling a 4-5-1 record. As for his actual performance, Demko has given up a whopping 2.6 goals per game, including two games of four goals (BU and UMass-Lowell, both early in the season) and one of five—his worst game of the season in BC’s 6-5 win over Vermont itself on Feb. 14.
The Eagles prepare with a solid, albeit different, attack plan against Vermont, according to York. The team has adjusted the lines, originally in reaction to Destry Straight’s difficulties—he missed several practices after sustaining a minor concussion at Notre Dame and suffered a bout of walking pneumonia. Straight will drop to the third line with seniors Quinn Smith and Michael Sit, while Chris Calnan will rise to the right wing spot on the second line, with Austin Cangelosi heading to center and Ryan Fitzgerald staying on the left side. The primary scoring line of Adam Gilmour, Sanford, and Tuch will remain the same.
“It was done based on practice time, but how we’ve looked it, we’re thinking ‘Hey, this looks pretty good,’” York said. “We need someone to help Gilmour’s line. They’ve been our main line all year, creating offense and zone play.” York feels that moving Cangelosi to center and putting Sit in a better position to utilize his speed should help the three lines combine for a higher balance of the forwards’ talents.
And while BC is the hotter team coming into this matchup, Vermont has struggled. The team finished strong to end 2014—a seven-game win streak put the Catamounts in the national eye early. Since then, UVM is a mere 6-10-3.
The Eagles collapsed in the HEA quarterfinals against the Fighting Irish last season, despite entering with a far stronger team (especially on offense). Although normally quite reserved, York exuded confidence in his team’s chances against Vermont. The team’s biggest weapon, the head coach believes, would come from a strong crowd at Kelley Rink.
“The fan base we’ve had all year has been terrific, and now we need them to come back out,” York said, lamenting disappointing crowds in previous years’ quarterfinal rounds. “We need that seventh player.”
Heights Staff Predictions
Michael Sullivan, Sports Editor—BC over Vermont, 2-1.
Jack Stedman, Assoc. Sports Editor—BC over Vermont, 2-0.
Tom DeVoto, Asst. Sports Editor—BC over Vermont, 2-0.
Arthur Bailin, Photo Editor—BC over Vermont, 2-1.
Connor Mellas, Heights Senior Staff—BC over Vermont, 2-0.
Michael Hoff, Heights Staff—BC over Vermont, 2-1.
Johnny Carey, Heights Staff—BC over Vermont, 2-0.
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor