Boston College hockey fans are pretty spoiled that a season without a Frozen Four appearance is a disappointment. However, this team did recover from a pretty bad start to be an NCAA tournament team. Plenty of programs would take a "down year," meaning finishing around 12th in the pairwise and making the tournament. Let's take a look at what went right for BC this season.
The development of Noah Hanifin
I can distinctly remember the moment when everything seemed like it was starting to click for Noah Hanifin. It happened on November 21 in Amherst and it looked a little something like this:
Noah Hanifin was not Jack Eichel this year; he's going to take a little bit longer to come into his own as a defenseman. But over the course of the season, watching Hanifin develop and improve was a joy to watch. In the first 17 games of the year, Hanifin had 2 goals and 5 assists. In the final 20 games, he had 3 goals and a team-leading 13 assists.
By the end of the season, Hanifin was playing monster minutes and in every situation. He has the potential to be the best defenseman in the league next year. And he could put up a lot of points, if he keeps doing things like this:
Demko was not Connor Hellebuyck this season; his presence didn't single-handedly allow BC to win a bunch of games they otherwise wouldn't have. But Demko was almost certainly the team's MVP this year, playing almost every minute of every game and keeping the team in a number of games when they were being wildly outplayed. He ended the year with a .924 save percentage and undoubtedly was a huge factor in BC being a tournament team despite having a pedestrian offense.
Here's Demko making the Sportscenter Top 10 with a ridiculous diving save:
It's worth noting that Demko was playing hurt this year. He needs hip surgery in the offseason, which should improve his flexibility and allow him to play without pain. Hopefully that makes him that much better in 2015-16.
It became abundantly clear by midseason that Teddy Doherty would be the next captain of the Eagles. While often overshadowed by his drafted teammates, Doherty has been a consummate teammate during his time with the Eagles. He has battled for his playing time and performed admirably in all three zones. As of late January, Doherty was actually the team's leading scorer. He ended the season with 23 points, and proved to be a versatile player, chipping in at forward after he was moved up front following injuries to Danny Linell and Brendan Silk.
His goal to beat Dartmouth at Dartmouth was one of the season's biggest.
Sanford, Tuch and Gilmour
Any first line BC cobbled together this year had a tough act to follow, but after Sanford, Tuch and Gilmour were united they fueled the hot streak that lifted BC in to the tournament. When playing as a line, the trio combined for 38 points in 18 games, by far BC's most successful combination. They were also a +22, again exceeding any other line combination by leaps and bounds.
Given the high end talent coming in next season, it wouldn't be surprising to see Bracco or White take a first line spot, but I don't think anyone would complain about these three rolling out as a line next fall.
Grinding It Out
I had to laugh/shake my head at some of the immediate reactions to Saturday's tournament loss that bagged on the team's effort and said they lacked intensity, heart, etc. In reality, that couldn't be further from the truth. While this team was incredibly aggravating to watch because of its offensive struggles, 99% of the time they were easy to embrace because of their heart, determination, and toughness (mental and physical).
BC ended the season as the #24-ranked offense in the country (2.82 G/gm) and the #22-ranked scoring defense (2.39 GA/gm). Thatcher Demko finished #19 in the nation in save percentage.The team's power play was #35 in the nation and the penalty kill was #14. So with all this in mind, how did the team end up in the nation's top 14? By grinding out wins.
BC had a number of solid, close wins that they were able to gut out. If even one of these results flipped, BC probably could have missed the tournament: they scored a late goal to squeeze past Denver in Denver 2-1 on Halloween night; they erased a third period deficit to tie UNH at UNH early in December; they rallied from down 2-1 in the third period to beat Dartmouth in Hanover to win the Ledyard Bank Classic; they scored late to tie Northeastern at Matthews Arena in January; they held on to beat Providence 3-2 in late January in a tense, hard-hitting game at Conte Forum; and, perhaps most importantly, they came from behind to beat Harvard in OT in the Beanpot consolation game, which ended up being the most crucial pairwise game of the season.
For all this team's offensive challenges, they never gave up, and they were rarely out of games. They pretty much never blew anyone out, but no matter who they faced they fought hard and had a chance to win. The only teams who really smoked them all year were Lowell and Minnesota. Other than that, they were in every game.
The "battle level" of this year's BC team made them fun to watch and to root for. They needed to give everything they had in order to make the tournament, and they did exactly that.