For those of you not making the trek to Worcester this weekend, the ESPN team of Joe Davis and Billy Jaffe will be providing the commentary on ESPNU. Jaffe, a local hockey fixture and regular commentator on NESN's Hockey East coverage, spent a few minutes with BCI to talk about the upcoming Northeast Regional.
BCI: I know you're mostly a Hockey East guy, but have you gotten to see much of Denver? What are your impressions of the Pioneers?
Jaffe: I've seen a good amount of Denver games on TV and have watched them on video leading up to this weekend. They're obviously a team that got hot at the right time of year and they seem to finally be playing their best hockey. They are obviously very good defensively, and have outstanding two-way defensemen - they have four legit power play quarterbacks on the blue line when they go on the man advantage. Those guys really help control the game at even strength as well. In general, they're a team that BC should expect is going to work really, really hard to limit BC's chances.
BCI: Traditionally I think of Denver as a high-skill, attacking team, but this year, they've struggled to score goals, relying on defense and goaltending to win. Would you chalk that up to a new coach and a new system, or the personnel on the team?
Jaffe: I'm going to go with the SAT answer and say "all of the above." They have a new system with a new coach, Jim Montgomery, who wants to implement his own brand of hockey. But it's also partly a function of the players on the roster. The team plays with a certain identity that's a little different from years past. The line centered by Matt Tabrum (with Larkin Jacobson and Grant Arnold) is known as the "mash line" and they really like to set the tone for Denver.
Denver has a few guys who can put the puck in the net, but nobody who jumps off the page at you, certainly not to the extent of, say, a Johnny Gaudreau, but not even to the extent of a guy like Billy Arnold. That's not the way their team is constructed. But they've done a good job of identifying what their strengths are and how they want to play.
BCI: There's a little bit of a crisis of confidence among BC fans after seeing Notre Dame beat BC 3 out of 4. Do you think Notre Dame exposed major flaws in BC's game? Do you think it was just a bad matchup? Do you expect to see the BC we're used to on Saturday?
Jaffe: I have a lot of confidence in BC. I think they're incredibly well-coached, obviously, and extremely talented. What we saw against Notre Dame was a few things. Firstly, we saw a team in Notre Dame that is senior-laden, whereas BC isn't - they rely on freshmen in a lot of key roles. We saw some Notre Dame veterans really come through in key situations. I also think that Notre Dame was able to implemenet what they wanted to do in terms of their game-plan in all of the games that they won. And remember, BC also hadn't played for a week.
That's my main concern with BC right now, that they've only played those three games in between two weeks off. Everybody wants to be playing at this time of year, bu they haven't had as much of a chance eto get into a groove.
They need to re-establish their free flowing offense, which obviously didn't happen against Notre Dame. I thought they looked excellent in the Saturday night game, and were pretty good on Sunday despite the loss, but never really hit full speed. It will be interesting to see if Denver adapts their game plan to what Notre Dame did against BC, and try to implement that sort of blueprint. When Notre Dame loses the puck, they shoot a guy or two back right away. While BC wants to transition and stretch, if that's not there, BC doesn't necessarily have the guys coming back deep to skate the puck out with speed. They end up getting caught in a bit of a no man's land in the neutral zone.
BCI: One of the other problems that popped up in the playoff series against Notre Dame that was decidedly NOT a problem down the stretch beforehand was that freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko struggled. Do you expect Demko to bounce back this weekend?
Jaffe: People need to remember the fact that he's a real young kid, the youngest player in college hockey, playing in this high pressure situation. Now, we have seen freshman goalies succeed at this stage. We've seen what Connor Hellebuyck did last year for Lowell. The goalie for Minnesota State, Huggins, is also a freshman who burst onto the scene. But it' still a tough spot for a young freshman.
BC really had their way in most of their games this year. They controlled a lot of things, which makes the goalie's job a lot easier. Then you're suddenly in a playoff situation and it's a different feel. Maybe that weekend series will be exactly what Demko needs to say, "Alright, I've done it now, there's nothing to worry about, it's just another game." Whenever you're an elite young talent like Demko is, there's going to be a lot of scrutiny, and that takes some getting used to.
BCI: What will be some tell-tale signs early that BC fans should be looking for on Saturday if we're looking for the Eagles to be playing at a level that could carry them through two games and into Philadelphia?
Jaffe: Obviously they need to have their speed going. That's the first thing. They need to be moving pucks north, moving through the neutral zone with speed - it's not their game to be having to bring it back to regroup, to play laterally and east-west and a lot of that stuff that we saw against Notre Dame. If they're getting flow and speed, and they can get their creativity going, then they're on. If BC gets caught in a slower game, I think that's where they'll have some issues.
BCI: Looking beyond BC and Denver and at the other matchup, Lowell vs. Minnesota State - what exactly makes Connor Hellebuyck so good? He's been simply incredible for two full seasons now.
Jaffe: I was incredibly impressed with Hellebuyck at the Hockey East tournament. How could you not be? His demeanor, his temperament, they are just well suited for playoff hockey. Nothing seems to bother him. In Friday night's game, he made four game-changing or game-altering saves that were really, really hard saves to make, and he made them all look easy. It's incredibly impressive how much body control he has, and how efficient he is laterally. He never gets outside the posts. He just has an overall presence and poise about him that his team feeds off of. The NHL scouting report on him is that he's positionally sound, he's well set, and has great composure. That sounds about right.
BCI: If you look at the rosters, Lowell has a couple of 20 point guys, but no big time scorers at all - and yet here they are again as Hockey East tournament champions. How do they do it?
Jaffe: Norm Bazin likes to say he has four second-lines that he can put out there at any time, in any situation, and feel confident in. They are a very impressive team. They play a determined and aggressive defensive game that transitions quickly into offense, usually initiated by stripping the puck off back pressure or forcing a turnover. And becaue of that, they've got many guys who can be effective.
Joe Pendenza, their leading scorer - his line was given the task of shutting down Kevin Goumas's line in the Hockey East championship game. Not only did they shut down that line, they scored 7 points of their own, while playing great defensively. You hear a lot about teams that backcheck hard -- well, in this case it really is true with the entire team, from top-to-bottom. They're truly all in on what they're trying to accomplish out there.
BCI: One last topic that seems to come up at this time each year - despite the presence of BC and Lowell, the DCU Center probably won't be sold out this weekend. The Frozen Four is always a hot ticket. But what can college hockey do to improve attendance in the regional rounds? Is the solution to move them back to campus sites?
Jaffe: Well, I haven't necessarily studied this topic the way other people have. But, that said - I understand why they do it the way they do now, and go to different cities for these games. But I wonder if sometimes they're forcing these regionals into areas where, there might be some other locations that are better suited to host. One of the truly great things about college hockey is the passion of the fan bases, the bands, and the intimacy of a 6,000 person crowd. Sometimes, we lose that when we go to these regionals and play in half-full AHL venues. But again, I get what they're trying to do -- trying to regionalize it, trying to neutralize it.
I don't know if "dilemma" is the right word, but this is definitely a topic that needs discussion, because you play all year in these great buildings with such great atmospheres, and then you get to these games and it's not the same as it is all year. And therefore... is the answer to go back to campus sites? Well, I don't know. Is the answer to maybe pick the top couple of venues in each area, even if they're on campus sites, and rotate between those? I don't know, that's an option too. It's certainly a topic worthy of further discussion.
Billy Jaffe covers hockey for NESN, ESPN and Sportsnet. You can hear him doing color commentary on Saturday at 4 PM on ESPNU when the Eagles take on the Denver Pioneers.