The 2017-2018 season has been nothing if not frustrating for the Boston College men’s hockey team.
For the second season in a row, the Eagles have looked strong against the majority of the Hockey East teams that they have played. Their 11-4 record is good for first place in the conference and they have beaten every team that they have played at least once. They have two very solid road wins over teams that would be in the NCAA tournament by Pairwise Rankings in Providence and Northeastern and they took down a BU team that is starting to look a bit more dangerous since the calendar turned over.
And yet, as of today, BC is on the outside looking in. The Eagles sit in 19th in the Pairwise Rankings, meaning that if the season ended today, they would need to win the Hockey East Tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind this is pretty easy to see: BC hasn’t beaten enough good teams. Hockey East is down across the board as a conference and BC’s wins have largely come against teams that are not that good.
With the exceptions of their victories over Providence and Northeastern, Boston College has been simply outclassed by top opponents. The Eagles have been beaten soundly by Wisconsin, swept by St. Cloud State, and blown out by Denver on their home ice in a 6-1 game that could easily have been worse. They lost twice to Providence and once to Northeastern and their best out of conference result has probably been an opening night tie against a Quinnipiac team that has significantly under-performed this season. BC has gone 0-5-3 in their non-conference games this season, with only the Beanpot remaining. It’s not exactly hard to see why BC has been struggling against some of these teams; the truth of the matter is simply that BC doesn’t have the top end talent that they’ve had in past seasons.
And so, the question turns to this: ‘If BC doesn’t have that talent that we’re used to, how can they beat the top end teams?’
That’s a hard question to answer, because based on what we’ve seen this season, it likely requires legitimate changes to certain aspects of BC’s game. For just about any team, it can be difficult to make adjustments to their play style during the season, let alone this far in. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the smaller things that BC can work on to get some better results against these top teams.
Retool The Powerplay
The Eagles are currently in their second straight season with a powerplay that is operating at under 20 percent. I’ve mentioned this a few times in the preseason and mid-season roundtables, but that really needs to be better, especially with how this team can struggle with scoring at 5-on-5. There are a number of factors that could be contributing to these struggles, but for my money, the biggest issue is how perimeter oriented the team is. Far too often, one of Michael Kim or Casey Fitzgerald will take a shot on a slow developing play that gets blocked and cleared or easily saved by a goalie facing no traffic.
There are a few different ways that this can be fixed without completely changing the system in the middle of the season. For one, there can and should be a higher emphasis on working the puck down lower and trying to create better scoring opportunities instead of settling for a shot from the perimeter. The Eagles have done this at times this season, including in their most recent game against UNH where a nice passing play lead to a goal from David Cotton in the slot area. The plays are there to be made, BC just needs to be more committed to making them.
If the Eagles are to continue to play a system that ends in a lot of point shots, however, there needs to be more of an effort to get bodies in front of the net. Goalies and defenses have had too easy a time seeing shots and clearing rebounds when BC shoots, and the only way to fix that is with players driving hard to the net. Shots from the point should be leading to screens, tips, and rebound chances, and for Boston College to be effective, that needs to start happening more often.
Shorten The Bench
The Eagles have a real problem with their forward depth right now-they really only have ten players who have shown the ability to play well at this level and they have twelve forward spots to fill. Mike Merulla hasn’t been able to crack the lineup, Casey Carreau is still adjusting to the college game, and neither Mike Booth nor Zach Walker have taken the next step in their second season, with the two of them combining for just three points on the season. The coaching staff is clearly aware of this issue, as both Booth and Walker have been scratches at points this season while defesemen Jesper Mattila and Connor Moore have taken shifts at forward. BC can overcome some of these problems against lesser teams, but they clearly struggle when their fourth line needs to take shifts against better opponents.
The solution here is simple in theory, give bigger minutes to the best ten forwards and limit the ice time of your eleventh and twelfth guys, especially as the game goes on. Constructing effective lines out of players who don’t see a lot of ice time together is not easy, but when Walker has two points in 18 games and Booth has one in 10, it’s something that probably needs to be done.
No More Bad Penalties
BC has taken way too many penalties this season, an even six per game. And while their powerplay has been fine on the season, successfully killing around 81 percent of their opportunities, there have been cracks recently. BC has allowed six powerplay goals in their last four games, and at a point of the season where every game is crucial, that’s something that’s just hard to overcome.
Some penalties need to be taken for sure. Connor Moore took a tripping call in Friday’s game against Providence that prevented what would likely have been a breakaway. But BC has taken more than their fair share of offensive zone penalties this season, and those need to stop. The Eagles just aren’t a team that can regularly overcome 12 minutes of shorthanded time against strong opponents, and they need to stop putting themselves in those situations when they don’t have to. Playing aggressive is fine, and it is not something that I want BC to stop doing. But they can’t be putting themselves at a disadvantage when they are 200 feet from their own net. In a perfect world, I’d like to see BC’s penalties per game drop down to about three or four but for now, I’ll settle with cutting down on the penalties that really don’t need to be taken.
So there it is, three ways that BC can put themselves in a better situation in some of these games against better opponents. The Eagles have an opening round Beanpot matchup with Northeastern and three games left against a UMass Lowell team that isn’t too far behind them in the Pairwise Rankings, so they’re certainly not out of the thick of it yet. With the season starting to wind down, BC really needs to string together some positive results, and the only way to do that will be by beating some better competition.