Boston College goes into the final weekend of the Hockey East regular season staring down a foe that has given them fits in recent years: Notre Dame. With BC's NCAA tournament position and first round bye in Hockey East both likely requiring at least one more win to sew up, tension will be high as the Eagles look to get their first ever win at the new Compton Family Ice Arena, and their first win in South Bend overall since October 23, 2009.
Jerry York's first eight games against Notre Dame as Boston College head coach went about the way BC's series with a lot of schools have gone during the York era. BC went 6-1-1 against Notre Dame from 1994-2001, which makes sense; BC was a rising dominant program, and Notre Dame was...not so much.
But as Notre Dame improved—and especially once head coach and comic book villain Jeff Jackson took the reins at Notre Dame in 2005—they quickly became one of the real thorns in Boston College's side, even long before ND-to-Hockey-East was ever a twinkle in Joe Bertagna's eye.
From 2003-2006, the Irish rattled off a three game winning streak againste the Eagles, including an ugly 7-1 smackdown at Conte Forum in 2006, Jeff Jackson's first visit to Chestnut Hill as ND head coach.
BC did manage to avenge those losses in the small matter of the 2008 National Championship game in Denver, beating Notre Dame 4-1 to win the Eagles' third national championship.
But even with that result mixed in, Notre Dame is a pretty damn impressive 9-5-0 against Boston College in the last 14 matchups. By way of contrast, BC is 29-20-2 against Boston University during that same stretch.
We all remember what happened last year. Boston College went into Senior Day against the Irish on a long unbeaten streak, only to lose in overtime to Notre Dame. Two weeks later, following ND's win over BU in the Octofinals(TM), the Irish were back at Conte Forum as the #8 seed, where they proceeded to stun the #1 Eagles 2-1 in a best-of-3 playoff series, keeping BC home during Hockey East championship weekend.
Remembering last year's games is perhaps instructive when trying to figure out why Notre Dame gives BC such problems. Jeff Jackson's teams are famous for playing a highly disciplined, highly conservative, trapping style. They also tend to be physical and very tough to break down. Additionally, they're going to do everything they can to try to slow down opposing skill guys, including getting away with as much holding and obstruction as refs will allow (mileage may vary depending on which brilliant and infallible Hockey East ref happens to be patrolling the ice).
While anyone can try a neutral zone trap against a high skilled team, not everyone can also combine it with some high end, high skill players like Notre Dame has managed to recruit through the years; thinking back to last year's playoffs, Notre Dame was able to kill BC on quick counter attacks, pouncing on BC turnovers and being patient and stout defensively while BC controlled possession.
This has been a formula that has worked wonders against BC and their notoriously small, speedy teams that love to get into track meets and run teams up and down the ice. When they play the trap effectively, Notre Dame is the perfect team to irritate and slow down high flyers like Johnny Gaudreau, Cam Atkinson and the like.
Of course, this year's BC team is not quite the same stylistically as other recent teams, so it will be interesting to see how the games play out this weekend. Given that BC has played a more conservative game of their own this year, it's quite likely that we'll see a defensively oriented chess match for most of the series, with a whole lot of emphasis on line matchups and limiting mistakes.
One thing's for certain: BC is going to need to break through against one of their most difficult opponents in recent history if they're going to end the regular season on a high note. Let's hope this year the Eagles enjoy South Bend more than they usually do.