It's not exactly breaking news to say that Boston College hockey fans have been spoiled in recent years, not only by success but also by the thrilling, high-tempo, high-octane style of hockey that BC has brought to Conte Forum week after week, especially since 2010. During that time, human highlight reels like Chris Kreider, Cam Atkinson and of course Johnny Gaudreau have graced the ice in maroon and gold and we've become accustomed to seeing BC lay waste to many of their opponents throughout the year.
I think we all know that's not likely to be the case this year, especially in conference games. But Saturday night's tight victory over UMass demonstrated a bit of a blueprint for a team that is finding a new identity and hoping to thrive in it.
Without rehashing or getting into the tired debate about "overaged" players in college hockey, it's well established that BC has been either the youngest or one of the youngest teams in college hockey almost every year recently - and perhaps it's no coincidence that these high-flying, high-scoring Eagles teams have been struck down the past two seasons by a, tough, wily and experienced (and highly skilled) Union team.
While BC is still one of the youngest teams in the nation this year, one thing certainly has changed - they are no longer a mostly small and speedy team. BC has size and strength. BC rolls out 5 defensemen who are over 6 feet tall. Up front, Chris Calnan, Adam Gilmour and Alex Tuch make up a first line of 6'2 and 6'3 NHL-sized, powerful forwards. Zach Sanford, Brendan Silk and Destry Straight all also top 6 feet.
Beyond just having size, though, has been BC's willingness to use it, and bring a physical game to their opponents, Through four games and an exhibition it's hard to remember a recent BC team that has so frequently laid the lumber to their opponents and matched up physically. We're also seeing offense created by crashing the net (think back to Quinn Smith's goal on Friday, or Calnan's opening goal at Lowell) in addition to some of the more typical pretty highlight reel goals.
It's clear that BC, despite being a young team, isn't going to be intimidated or pushed around by anyone, as we saw by the willingness of just about every player on the team - even Thatcher Demko! - to stand up for himself and smack an opposing player in the mouth if they end up on the wrong end of a hit they don't like. (How often have we seen BC goalies run in recent years with scant retaliation?) We also saw multiple players come to the defense of Chris Calnan when he was run into the boards late in the CC game, and given the score I was fine with BC taking penalties to make sure opponents know they can't take liberties with BC's top players.
I don't think it's any coincidence that both Colorado College and UMass descended into some frustrated (for lack of a better term) goonery down the stretch as BC was finishing off wins on Friday and Saturday. This BC team seems frustrating to play against, and seems like they're in opponents' faces and talking a lot during the game. But they've also, of course, got high end skill capable of creating a lot of offense - a combination that's sure to be frustrating for opponents.
This newfound size and physicality is one of two aspects of the "new" BC identity that fans need to get used to and embrace in order to properly evaluate the team this year. The other is the fact that you're likely not going to see the kind of spectacular fireworks and blowout wins at home fans have come accustomed to. Things are not going to come easy for BC this year and they're going to need to eke out close wins. If they can beat all the teams they're supposed to beat, though, they will make the tournament - regardless of how explosive or not BC looks against a Michigan or a Minnesota (or a, gulp, BU?).
I, for one, can't help escaping the sense that the ease with which BC sliced through many of its opponents in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 season didn't do the Eagles any favors down the stretch when they had to go up against the Union buzzsaw. We remember how the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2012 teams needed to fine-tune their game throughout the first half of the season before clicking and going on a run late in the year. I'm not comparing this team to any of those teams - nor am I saying it's a given that BC is going to struggle in any significant way (after all, they're 3-1 and currently lead the nation in goals per game). But it's worth remembering if you get the sense that this team doesn't have the high-end skill level that the last few have. They don't - but that doesn't mean they can't find a path to major success.
Speaking of high-end skill, BC's next test comes this weekend against a program the Eagles have a long-standing friendly rivalry with, the Denver Pioneers. BC will play two out in Denver on Friday and Saturday night in what should be a stiff road exam for this group, coming off three games against less than stellar competition. DU, like BC, carries a 3-1 record into this weekend, coming off a weekend split with Minnesota-Duluth. DU started the year with two victories over RPI, but those two wins look at lot less impressive in light of Bentley's sweep over RPI this past weekend (NEW GUY!!!!!). Both of these teams will have a lot to prove this weekend in hoping to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.
Denver's roster features 6 NHL draft picks, including Will Butcher, who you may remember from the US World Junior team, and Quentin Shore, of the neverending Shore dynasty (the Western Biegas). After a so-so 2013-2014 season that ended with a lopsided defeat by BC in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Denver is looking to move up this year. These two games should provide a pretty accurate picture for where BC is right now, and while where BC is may be different from what we've gotten used to, that could still be OK.