The Boston College hockey season unofficially started with a tough 5-2 loss on Saturday to the University of New Brunswick in an exhibition game. Here are some observations from Saturday:
1. Thatcher Demko looked healthy... Not only did Demko play, he looked comfortable and confident between the pipes. After the game, Jerry York suggested that Demko could be ready to go for 60 minutes on Friday in West Point.
He certainly showed no ill effects from his offseason hip surgery, moving with ease and gobbling up everything that was thrown in his direction. He didn't have to make any spectacular saves, but he made a lot of medium-difficulty saves look routine. He also did a good job preventing rebounds - something that might be very necessary with this defense, given the meltdown that occurred in the second period. Speaking of which...
2. ...And he had better stay healthy. Chris Birdsall made his first career appearance as an Eagle in the final two periods, and it did not go well. With BC up 2-0 halfway through second period, Birdsall gave up a soft goal between his pads that breathed life into the Varsity Reds. 11 seconds later, UNB scored again, after Birdsall served up a juicy rebound and BC's defense didn't seem to know what to do with it, allowing UNB to waltz their way to a tie score. UNB went on to score three more goals in the period, including two that were pretty cringe-worthy.
Birdsall improved in the third period, stopping all 7 shots he faced, and it did look like his second period issues had as much to do with getting rattled as anything - which is understandable given that it was his first game. However, Birdsall is not expected to be on Demko's level - his save percentages in three years in the USHL were .867, .888, and .914. Based on the way BC played in the first period, they're going to be reliant on Demko's dependability to give BC the license to be aggressive in attack.
3. BC showed signs of having a transition offense again. Some of BC's best teams really thrived on punishing opponents in transition, relying on a great goalie to make key saves while forwards are ready to break the other way and pounce. BC's first goal was pretty much straight out of that playbook. Demko made a save and knocked the puck up to Austin Cangelosi, who led BC down the ice on a 3-on-2. He fed Jeremy Bracco, who put it on net; Miles Wood was there to stuff home a rebound. The entire process, from Demko's save to the red light going on down the other end, took a total of 9 seconds. That was my favorite part of the game, for sure.
4. New Brunswick dominated the game physically. BC is not a super short team the way they have been in previous years. There are plenty of 6-footers on the team. With an average height of about 6 feet even, BC is actually #14 in the country in that statistic. However, they looked tiny next to UNB, who really imposed their will physically - not just through hitting but by winning puck battles and using their strength to stifle what BC was trying to accomplish. It's understandable - UNB's team is older, and many of the players are veterans with some professional hockey experience. However, it was very noticeable.
In the waning seconds of the game, a frustrated Ryan Fitzgerald got into a little scrum with a UNB player, then slammed his stick against the boards in frustration upon returning to the bench; the stick slam was greeted with loud taunts from the entire UNB bench, who clearly were enjoying rattling the Eagles.
5. The Kid was right about Miles Wood. Our friend over at the BC Hockey Blog has been mocked over the past two years for his love affair with Miles Wood, but upon first glance it looks like he is the real deal. Not only is he big and fast, he seems to have a good understanding of how plays develop. Of the big three BC freshman forwards he seemed like the one most ready to make an immediate impact.
6. Hockey East refs can even screw up a preseason game that doesn't count. Seriously, it seems a little early in the year to be sick of the penalty parade but the amount of ticky-tack calls in both directions was maddening. Both teams took 8 penalties, with UNB going 3-for-8 on the PP and BC going 1-for-8. Only around half of the game was played at full strength, which is not great for an exhibition game when you're trying to evaluate your line combinations and defense pairings. The worst offense was in the second period when Tim Benedetto was on the receiving end of a loud, flappy-mouthed Canadian lecture from UNB coach Gardiner MacDougall over an apparent missed call on the previous shift, then proceeded to immediately blow the whistle for a soft penalty against BC right after the puck was dropped. It was so bad, and so Hockey East. Welcome back!
7. The defense is a work in progress. Josh Couturier was a -2 in his debut, Steve Santini (+1) was the only defenseman with a positive +/- at game's end, and all around BC seemed to struggle with clearing out rebounds and effectively making those key first passes to get the puck out of the zone. Demko is going to be a key player because BC is a long way off from being a lock down team defensively right now. On the positive side, Scott Savage was lively, scoring a 5-on-3 goal and firing 5 shots on net.
BC returns to the ice for the regular season opener on Friday night at Army West Point, then travels to Troy on Sunday to take on RPI. We'll be here with more coverage and thoughts all week long.