The Boston College Eagles avoided disaster this weekend, but they were perilously perched at the edge of it. From Friday night's indefinite suspension of Kevin Hayes, through the tough overtime loss at Merrimack, straight on through to this afternoon's very frustrating, extremely winnable 4-4 tie against UNH at Conte Forum, the good tidings flowing following last Monday's Beanpot triumph seem to have given way to a bit of unease on Good Ship Eagle.
All this is not to say that BC played poorly today (or Friday, for that matter). In fact, the Eagles very much looked like the better team for the vast majority of this afternoon's game, carrying the play except for some bad stretches, and giving up two really unacceptably soft goals that separated BC from a big victory. Late in the first period, with BC up 1-0, UNH scored a power play goal on a wound up Eric Knodel shot from the red line, which beat Parker Milner, who had a very up-and-down day - making some tremendous saves to bail out the BC defense while also getting crossed up several times and allowing this bad goal.
Thirty four seconds into the second period, BC had another brain fart as Teddy Doherty knocked a Dan Correale centering pass into his own net, another goal that just simply shouldn't have happened, which turned a very good early BC performance into a 2-1 hole. BC managed to avoid what would have been a crushing loss by roaring back from two deficits, reversing the 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead going into the third period on goals by Steve Whitney and Pat Mullane.
But a very ugly opening to the third threw away hopes for a major win, as Grayson Dowling and Matt Willows scored for UNH in the first eight minutes to take the lead back. It must be said that the Eagles looked extremely lackadaisical coming out of the locker room for the third and were really running around in their own end, making the kinds of breakdowns that led to wide open UNH chances that characterized BC's slump through much of last month.
Thankfully, Billy Arnold came down and scored on the ensuing faceoff at 8:01 to re-tie the game for the Eagles. In overtime, UNH buzzed the BC net and caused quite a few heart attacks among the BC faithful but the Eagles ultimately were able to scrape out the tie.
If BC had lost today's game, they could have very well fallen off a Pairwise cliff; they came into today clinging to the 5th spot with a very narrow gap over teams 6-10, one that can easily be erased with one loss (though I'm not 100% sure if losing today would have done that; Grant will have to run the numbers). As it is, BC actually came out of today tied for 4th with UNH, with Miami dipping a bit in 3rd place after losing to Notre Dame today.
So, as I said from the beginning, the theme for the day (and for the weekend, really) was avoiding disaster. At the end of the day, BC is still tied for 4th, and has every opportunity to surpass UNH and lock down a one seed (and hopefully a spot in one of the two eastern regionals). The status quo is also maintained in the Hockey East standings, as Merrimack and Providence tied today, meaning there is still a one point gap from Merrimack to BC, then one point back to UNH, and another single point back to Providence and BU in the battle for the final home ice spot.
It's going to be a tough, competitive grind to the end of the Hockey East schedule, and it's hard to really get a read on how to feel about BC right now. They obviously weren't going to run the table like they did last year, and no reasonable fan could have expected that. But I do think that today's game was the kind of game where I really expected to see BC show up and torch their opponent with a swarming 60-minute effort. We've seen BC teams in the past have a knack for knowing which games were going to have major implications on the tournament picture, and come out and play their best game. While they played well for the most part, that didn't happen today.
Specific points of praise: as I mentioned on Twitter earlier, I'm running out of superlative for how well Mike Matheson has played since returning from injury. He has reminded me a lot of Brian Dumoulin, which is extraordinarily high priase (Dumoulin is probably my favorite BC player of the past 6 years). He scored a very nice goal today on a great feed from Johnny Gaudreau, who returned the favor after Matheson served him up a nasty goal in the Beanpot final. He also made a tremendous defensive play to stop a UNH partial break, and did so without taking a penalty, something that wouldn't have happened first semester. (I told the people around me that it reminded me of the scene in Happy Gilmore where Happy is about to chuck his club after a bad shot, but instead restrains himself).
I'm very, very impressed with the senior leadership displayed by Steve Whitney this year, especially as of late, a stretch in which he's been BC's best player - responsible defensively, lethal on offense, clutch in big situations, and key to all kinds of scenarios for the Eagles. He really took over the game for multiple stretches today, and his game-opening tally was brilliant, slowing himself up just enough to trail the BC rush and be wide open to take a feed from Billy Arnold in the high slot and rip it home. I often feel like when the Eagles are at their best this time of year, you can see the goals coming before they go in because you can see the moves the players are making and the understanding they have of where the other is going. Whitney's goal was like that.
The negatives today, aside from the defensive breakdowns and soft goals, included the power play outside of the one BC scored on, which mostly struggled to maintain time in the offensive zone (and fired blanks on a power play opportunity to win the game in the final two minutes of regulation).
We don't know if Kevin Hayes will be back any time soon, including in time for next Sunday's key game at Merrimack. But we do know that even without Hayes, BC played hard and played well for two games this weekend. However, neither performance was enough for a win, and at this time of year, the wins really need to start piling up. It will be a nervy week for fans of this team as we wait to see how next weekend goes; it seems like for weeks the Eagles have been teetering on the edge between locking down a 1 seed and falling into the pack. Thanks to today's tie, we remain in that spot for another week.