There are a few different storylines surrounding Boston College men’s hockey, and I’m not sure which one to believe now that Trophy Season is upon us.
The good: Freshman goaltender Joseph Woll and a young Eagles squad have exceeded preseason expectations by far, sitting atop the Hockey East standings with just two weeks remaining.
The bad: BC has shown its youth lately—especially on defense—allowing 17 goals in the last four games and dropping to 13th in the PairWise Rankings.
The ugly: Last Monday, Jerry York watched his team suffer a 3-1 loss to No. 3 Boston University in the Beanpot semifinals, the finishing touch on a regular season sweep in the Battle of Comm. Ave., the Terriers’ first since York’s inaugural season on the Heights in 1994-95.
Losing to the same team three times in a year certainly hurts. But when that team is archrival BU, you might as well retreat back into your den for the next six weeks until spring arrives.
That’s why a potential regular-season title for the Eagles would feel somewhat empty this year. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and BC has floundered against elite competition this season. The Eagles are 3-7 versus ranked opponents, including a disheartening 0-3 record against the second-place Terriers. BC has done little to convince fans (and USCHO.com pollsters) that it is indeed the best team in Hockey East.
But that’s not to say that the last two weekends of the regular season are meaningless—quite the opposite. If the Eagles close strong against No. 15 Vermont and No. 9 Massachusetts Lowell, they can earn a critical boost of momentum before the postseason, not to mention a much-needed re-entry into the PairWise Top 10. Otherwise, BC is at risk of missing the cutoff for the NCAA Tournament—even if the team hangs on to the Hockey East regular season championship. Unlike March Madness, the NCAA Tournament for hockey strictly relies on PairWise rankings to determine its 16 participants rather than a selection committee.
For BU, the home stretch isn’t easy, either. The Terriers play a home-and-home series with New Hampshire before hosting No. 16 Notre Dame at the end of the month. They will likely need at least three wins in four games to steal the Hockey East crown from BC.
But before the Green Line foes finish their conference slates, they must tackle a more pressing issue: Monday night’s Beanpot, the 65th in tournament history. There’s a lot on the line for both teams, as the Eagles are looking to avoid their first last-place finish in the Beanpot since 1993. That also marks the last time that a team other than BC or BU won the Beanpot, a feat Harvard is trying to repeat against the Terriers on one of college hockey’s biggest stages.
The prospect of finishing fourth in the Beanpot and missing out on the NCAA Tournament is most definitely unsettling for BC fans. But let’s take a minute and remember where this team was projected to be a few months ago. Picked by Hockey East coaches as the sixth-best program in the conference, the Eagles were framed as a rebuilding squad trying to recover from a mass exodus of talent to the NHL. It didn’t take long until that perception was shattered, though, as BC beat its first two ranked opponents—then-No. 3 Denver and No. 14 Providence—and jumped out to an early lead in Hockey East standings.
What followed was a steady decline in PairWise position and a similar deflating of confidence in the Eagles’ postseason chances. BC’s third-straight loss to BU proved to be an absolute morale-killer, and Friday night’s matchup with Merrimack did little to reestablish faith in the team. York was forced to pull Woll in the first period after his netminder allowed three quick goals, and BC couldn’t overcome the slow start en route to a 6-3 loss. It was the Warriors’ first win at Kelley Rink since Oct. 31, 1997. And I’m just as outraged now as I was at one month old when it last happened.
The problem here is that there are two sets of expectations for men’s hockey. First, there’s the bar set by coaches and media affiliated with Hockey East. But then there’s the bar set by York, the winningest coach in hockey history.
York doesn’t do rebuilding years. He doesn’t use youth or the competitiveness of his conference as excuses. Luckily, York has been here once or twice. Or 45 times. For any other program, beating preseason projections so handily would be deemed a triumph. For York’s Eagles, though, there’s never time to be satisfied.
The 71-year-old skipper knows that a regular-season title will be overshadowed by the three heartbreaking losses to the Terriers unless it’s also accompanied by postseason success. As a Golden State Warriors fan, I know how the worth of an incredible regular season can be devalued due to a playoff collapse. In other words, the real test will take place during March’s Hockey East and NCAA Tournaments.
If BC can fend off its rival at the top of Hockey East standings for the final two weeks of the season, the team has reason to celebrate. The Eagles will have overcame inexperience and dealt BU a symbolic loss, proving doubters wrong on their way to another conference championship. But the celebration shouldn’t last for long. The Terriers are coming, and they smell blood.
So which narrative surrounding BC should you buy into? I’m still not sure—this team continues to surprise me, and it’s not always in a good way. But if anyone tries to tell you that the Eagles are in fine shape because they’re in first place in Hockey East, don’t believe it. BU begs to differ, and right now, BC doesn’t seem like it wants to settle matters on the ice.
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor