Point/Counterpoint: Was Men’s Hockey’s Season Encouraging?

boston college men's hockey

Exceeding Expectations

Bradley Smart| Assoc. Sports Editor

At the start of the season, Boston College men’s hockey was picked to finish fourth in Hockey East—slotted behind the likes of Boston University, Massachusetts Lowell, and Providence. They drew just one first-place vote—the product of a youthful roster that returned zero seniors and had more question marks than answers.

And for the first seven games of the year, it sure seemed like the Eagles were destined for a shaky season. They went 1-5-1, splitting a series with the aforementioned Friars while getting blown out by national title contenders Denver, St. Cloud State, and Wisconsin. BC managed just one goal in four of the games and struggled to protect goaltender Joseph Woll, who was called on for 30-plus saves three times.

So expectations weren’t particularly high around the Heights and campus for conference play—but the youngest team in the country flipped a switch for head coach Jerry York. The Eagles rattled off seven straight wins, impressing in sweeps of Vermont and Merrimack before downing Northeastern.

It was a remarkable turnaround, but what followed says more about the encouraging potential on York’s roster. The Eagles were simply in a slump and looked like they were going to go out with a whimper. They went winless at the Ice Vegas Invitational and dropped two of three entering the Beanpot—where they flamed out with two losses, the second time they went winless at the historic tournament in as many years.

But, instead of watching their Hockey East pole position spot fade away, BC rallied. Despite ending the year with a Senior Night in which there were no seniors to honor for their guidance, the Eagles won four games in a row to enter the postseason as the regular season champions—a far cry from fourth. Next, they swept Merrimack with relative ease (despite being outshot, they had premier performances from Woll to boost them), and took BU, the conference’s preseason favorite, to overtime in the semifinals.

Granted, the semifinal loss was particularly brutal—the Eagles were outplayed for much of the game, lost a two-goal lead, then, even while playing some of their best hockey in overtime, they saw their season end in heartbreaking fashion when the Terriers’ Patrick Curry slotted the game-winner home. Still, they weren’t even supposed to be there, and the play down the stretch should give fans of the program optimism heading into next year.

Here’s why: York now has a crop of young players that developed very well this year, an Olympic-caliber goaltender, and a group of very talented recruits coming in that should mesh will with the current roster. Losing in overtime to spoil any chances at further postseason play is a tough, tough thing to go through, but now with that under their belt, guys like Logan Hutsko and Julius Mattila can continue to take steps forward.

Hutsko earned Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Year honors in the Hockey East, and really came on as a multi-faceted player as the year progressed. He went through a midseason lull after a strong start, then truly erupted as the team’s top offensive threat—five straight games with multiple points was evidence of that. Alongside him, Mattila almost doubled his point total from the year before, while Graham McPhee also flourished and more than doubled his scoring output. The defense was bolstered by the conference’s top defenseman in junior captain Casey Fitzgerald, who locked things down in front of the more than capable Woll—the offense’s thriving down the stretch is a sign of things to come, especially considering the group of recruits York has assembled.

The Eagles will boast an offensive attack that should be feared in Hockey East is poised to break out. With Hutsko, McPhee and Mattila all excelling, they’ll have to take several talented forwards under their wings and push them forward. Several pieces arriving in Chestnut Hill have been on the national radar for years, with NHL Draft Scouting ranking Patrick Giles the 19th-best prospect in his class, while Jack McBain is no slouch at 29th. Both are capable of scoring in high quantities and should impress when they arrive.

Overall, BC obviously had a season of ups and downs—it didn’t win a non-conference game, after all. But, one can’t look at the body of work, the growth of several key players, and plenty of incoming talent without being encouraged about what’s to come in 2018-19.

Struggled When it Mattered Most

Ben Thomas | Asst. Sports Editor

A loss to Boston University on Friday night marked the fifth time in six years Boston College men’s hockey failed to advance to the Hockey East Final. In the six years prior to that span, the Eagles won the tournament a total of five times. While BC certainly didn’t have the same expectations going into this season as it did before its 2012 Championship run, head coach Jerry York and Co. have failed to reach the bar this year.

For starters, after a Princeton victory over Clarkson in the ECAC Final on Saturday, the Eagles were officially eliminated from postseason contention. BC has now failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time in the past 20 years. One would think that a team that finishes in first place in one of the more competitive conferences in the NCAA would be able to make some noise in the tournament, but the achievement is extremely deceiving.

To begin the season, BC was slated in the USCHO preseason poll to finish fourth in Hockey East. By that standard, it greatly exceeded predictions, but conference standings don’t tell the whole tale. The Eagles finished with just the fourth-most overall wins of all Hockey East teams and only ended up with the fifth-most goals scored. They were even jumped by Northeastern in the poll during the season, and for good reason.

Despite the fact that the Eagles won three times as many conferences games as they lost, they came up with few wins when they mattered most. Including its 3-0 loss to Northeastern in the Beanpot and the Hockey East semifinal game versus the Terriers, BC had a losing record of 4-5 against Providence, BU, and Northeastern—the three Hockey East teams that still have more to play for this season and have more overall wins than the Eagles. In those nine games, the Eagles were outscored 23-30.

The difference in competition resembles the team’s play of late. While the Eagles skated past lowly Merrimack in two-consecutive games at Kelley Rink, they got into trouble at TD Garden. BC nearly came away with the win against BU, but didn’t look like the same team that had won six-straight conference games dating back to Feb. 15. It’s important to note, though, in those matchups, the Eagles played teams with a combined Hockey East record of 26-39.

The reason BC was on the bubble in the first place was because of its putrid performance against non-conference competition. The Eagles didn’t record a single win outside of Hockey East this season. Granted, they played a relatively competitive non-conference schedule, but these games are given to them in the hopes that they will be quality contests. They were not. Four-consecutive losses in October to Wisconsin, St. Cloud St. (twice), and Denver by a combined 13 goals foreshadowed what has been a long year for BC against unfamiliar opponents.

Had just one of those games gone the other way, it could have been a completely different season for BC. The Eagles played the most difficult opponents of any Hockey East team, in terms of strength of schedule. They had a tremendous opportunity to justify their record with at least one impressive win. Instead, BC failed each and every time. In fact, despite their top spot in Hockey East, the Eagles recorded two fewer non-conference wins than any other team below them.

When observing Pairwise rankings—the metric that determines NCAA Tournament seeding—it becomes clear how much BC struggled outside of its conference. Although its worst losses came against the three aforementioned teams, many of its non-conference blunders came against opponents that shouldn’t have posed much of a threat. Using the Eagles’ rank of 16 as a marker, it’s inexplicable how the team couldn’t hold off so many inferior opponents. Games that should have been wins—home contests against 28th-ranked Harvard and 32nd-ranked Quinnipiac, ended up as ties—and a 5-4 loss to the Crimson in the Beanpot consolation game to end non-conference play was the icing on the cake.

At the end of the day, BC fell short of the NCAA Tournament, which alone should deem this season a failure. Its fatal flaws outside of the conference make it clear why the Eagles weren’t likely to be in consideration for an at-large bid even before conference tournament play began. They couldn’t even win a game outside New England this year, how could they have been expected to win one in Minneapolis in the Frozen Four? BC is young and should be back in the tournament as soon as next season, but a variety of factors make it hard to believe that the Eagles are happy with how things have gone this year.

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor