Well that was a heck of a way to close the first half of the season.
The Boston College men’s hockey team played two dominant games against Notre Dame over the weekend, winning two blow outs by scores of 4-0 and 6-1 to go into the holiday break in style. The Eagles - now off until January 4 - boast an 11-4 record, a nine game winning streak, and two of the top ten point scorers in the country by points per game. By any metric you want to choose, this was one heck of a first 15 games. Here are some final thoughts before hockey goes into hiding for a few weeks.
FIRST LINE STILL DOMINANT
If you asked me the reasons that BC is off to such a great start, good goaltending would probably be first with massively improved depth scoring close behind. Too many times last season, it would feel like any time without the top line of David Cotton, Julius Mattila, and Logan Hutsko was a waste and that the best the team could hope for was not getting scored against. That’s not the case anymore, as improved forward play and increase scoring from the defense means that the top line no longer has to carry the team for long stretches.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t do it. The trio of Cotton, Mattila, and Hutsko has been nothing short of brilliant this season, with Cotton and Mattila in the top ten in scoring based on points per game and Logan Hutsko having recorded at least one point in every game that he has skated in to this point. On Sunday night’s game against Notre Dame, the three players combined for two goals and five points in just the opening period, ending the game before the Irish even had a chance to get going. They have certainly benefited from the improved scoring depth, but they still make up one of the very best lines in the country and have the ability to win games by themselves when they have to.
I don’t really know what there is left to say about BC’s freshman goalie at this point. If you were skeptical at all about a true freshman taking over from Day 1, your worries have surely vanished. If you had high hopes for the highest drafted goalie in a decade, he has likely blown them away.
Knight has started every game for BC this season. He has a .940 save percentage and is allowing fewer than two goals per game. Through 15 games, he already has four shutouts and he has not allowed more than two goals in a single game since October 25. With respect to the aforementioned trio of great forwards, Knight has been the MVP of this team through the first half of the season and I don’t know that it’s particularly close in my mind.
Knight succeeds for a number of reasons. His game is so technically sound that he has seemingly never once been out of position or not squared to the shooter even once this season. He simply does not let up bad goals, he makes highlight reel saves, and he moves across his crease with surprising athleticism for someone his size. Enjoy watching him while you can, because if he’s this good as a freshman, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be around for long.
SPECIAL TEAMS APPEAR GOOD ENOUGH
There’s an old belief in the NHL that if you’re power play percentage and your penalty kill percentage add up to 105 percent, then you’re in good shape. Through 15 games, BC is clicking at about 81 percent on the kill and a whopping 25 percent (ninth in the nation!!!) on the power play. Some quick math puts the sum of those two numbers at 106 percent, right around that line where a team would want to be.
The importance of the power play’s improvement can’t be overstated. The Eagles finished last season tied for the 27th best power play at just 19 percent. This was made worse by the fact that the team just couldn’t score at even strength with any kind of consistency. This season the power play just looks a lot different, in a good way. There’s more puck movement, fewer point shots, and more bodies near the net looking for screens, deflections, and rebounds when the shots are being taken. Goals come from the high danger areas in front of the net, and it has been refreshing to see the power play looking to create more from there.
The penalty kill hasn’t been quite as good for BC, currently slotting in at #25 in the nation, but there are reasons for optimism all the same. For one, BC is tied for the NCAA lead in shorthanded goals with five on the season. Second, the penalty kill has only recently been bolstered by the return of Patrick Giles, who has only played in the last six games this season. Giles has made his living this season on the penalty kill, with all three of his points (two goals, one assist) coming while shorthanded. Equally as important has been the Eagles improved discipline in recent games. After taking roughly 43 penalties in their first seven games, BC has taken just 34 in their last eight. That’s not a massive improvement by any stretch (and you better believe those start and end dates were cherry picked), but they have allowed just three power play goals against in that time frame. If they can stay out of the box just a little bit in the second half, they should be in good shape.
BREAKOUTS LOOK BETTER
The breakout might be the most important play in hockey. If a team can consistently exit their own zone with speed and possession, chances are they’ll be playing a lot more offense over the course of a game. If a team takes two or three tries to clear the zone or if they rely on just flipping the puck off the boards into the neutral zone, the opposite is likely true.
For all the troubles that BC has had in the past few season, I’d argue that this is where many of them started. If you ever found yourself thinking that BC looked less dangerous than usual, chances are it was because the team was stuck in their own zone for long stretches, unable to get the puck out with any consistency.
This season has been a different story, as BC’s breakout finally seems to be back to being a strength. Defensemen seem to be a bit quicker retrieving puck, giving themselves more time and space to make crisp passes and the impact is easy to see. BC is averaging more than an extra goal per game compared to last season and is giving up almost a full goal less. It all starts with being able to quickly transition from defense to offense, and the Eagles have been great at that this year.
SECOND HALF TESTS EVERYWHERE
If you have to point out one potential asterisk on BC’s current win streak (and you don’t), it would probably be that they’ve mostly played the teams towards the bottom of hockey east. BC currently sits sixth in Hockey East (though they have at least three games in hand on everyone in front of them) and have only played on team above them, Providence.
That will change rapidly once the calendar turns to January. Four of BC’s first five games of the second half will be against UMass Amherst, UMass Lowell, and BU while a two game series with Northeaster awaits in February. Our perception of this team shouldn’t change based on who they have or have not played to this point — BC is a good hockey team full stop. But there will be plenty of big games coming up in January and February as the Eagles look to return to the NCAA Torunament.
TOUGH TIME FOR A BREAK
I want to keep watching this team play right now. They’re rolling and playing a fun brand of hockey and I’d like to keep watching them come back against Harvard or knock the tar out of Notre Dame. Here’s hoping they’re still hot when they come back.
Until January everyone!