15 games in to the 2014-2015 season, the Boston College hockey team was grinding its way back in to contention, but sat at 7-7-1. This year, with the semester break looming, BC sits at 13-1-1 and looks to be a contender for Hockey East and national honors. Obviously, BC's record itself tells you enough about how much the team has improved year over year, but let's take a look at statistical comparisons between this year's team and last year's team:
The most notable difference between this year's team and last year's is the offense, which is ranked #2 nationally right now with 4.40 goals per game. Last year, BC had 2.87 goals per game at this point in the season, mid-pack at #23 nationally. How have they done it?
The obvious first thing to look at is BC freshmen Colin White and Miles Wood, who are #1 and #3 on the team in scoring with 23 and 19 points, respectively. Their presence has elevated the rest of the offense. Last year, BC's co-leading scorers at this point - Alex Tuch, Teddy Doherty and Adam Gilmour - all had 10 points each. Right now, the Eagles have 9 players with 10 points or more.
Ryan Fitzgerald has shown a huge improvement statistically year over year. He has 11 goals to lead the team and 21 points total. Last year at this time he was at 7-2--9. Fitzgerald is showing that high end scoring skill that has shown flashes over his first two years - and he's also reaping the benefits of playing on a line that's developed great chemistry.
Matt Gaudreau, the third piece of that line, had three points at this time last year. Remarkably, he's 5th on the team in scoring right now with 13 points. With a shooting percentage of 20%, it's fair to assume his goal scoring pace will drop off, but he keeps putting himself in the right places and contributing to a line that's been one of BC's best.
Austin Cangelosi is another player whose numbers have improved from 1-5--6 to 5-7--12. He's slowed down a little bit after a red hot start, but remains well ahead of the pace of his first two seasons. Cangelosi and Wood have possibly been slowed down by Chris Calnan's injury but hopefully he can get back to full health and that line can return to its production from the first few weeks.
The important thing is that multiple lines have been able to step up even if one goes cold. The Wood/Cangelosi/Calnan line was carrying the team in the early weeks, when Tuch was struggling to get going and Fitzgerald's line was anchored down by the non-production of Jeremy Bracco. It's been White, Fitzgerald and Gaudreau leading the way the last few weeks since they were boosted by the insertion of Gaudreau on the wing. Tuch/Sanford/Gilmour have been steady, as they were last year - but they're not counted on to provide all the offense.
The Eagles' pace defensively has slowed down in recent weeks as the defense has finally shown some cracks, but they remain one of the nation's stalwart defensive teams averaging 1.47 goals allowed per game. Last year, with a much ballyhooed D corps with 5 NHL draft picks, BC was averaging 2.67 goals allowed per game at this point in the seaosn. What has changed?
Well, first and foremost we all know that Thatcher Demko is playing the best hockey of his collegiate career following hip surgery in the offseason. At this point last year, his save percentage was .922. Now it's .945. That's obviously a huge factor.
But there are other factors as well, and I think that starts with BC simply spending more time in their opponents' attacking zone. While not a perfect measure of possession, shots are a decent proxy measure, and BC is averaging 33.33 shots on goal per game vs. 26.60 for opponents. Last year the shot margin on average was 29.93-28.60. The Eagles' even-strength share of the shots last season was 52.9%; this year, 55.9% (9th in the country).
The Eagles' physicality has also helped keep opponents out of the dirty areas, as Ryan Lambert highlighted in an excellent piece on BC's defense over at College Hockey News. It also feels like the Eagles are turning the puck over less (though this isn't tracked statistically at the NCAA level) - possibly due to the steadying influence of Casey Fitzgerald, and possibly because there's less pressure on the defensemen to create offense. Last season Hanifin and Matheson were arguably 2 of BC's 5 best offensive players. This year the defense is able to focus more on defense, and that's been good for the team.
BC's power play in the first half of last season was hilariously bad, and sat at 6-for-63 at this point in the season (9.5%, 50th in the nation). This actually was a big improvement over where they were a few weeks earlier when they were mired in a weeks-long power play drought. The power play is still just OK this year (36th in the nation at 17.6%). There's real potential for that number to go up, which is a scary proposition for opponents.
The Eagles are pretty much always good on the PK, and their PK strength helped them stay in contention last year; it was at 90.5% at this point. This year they're slightly lower at 89.9% but still #6 in the nation. Crucially, however - and a reflection of BC's increased team speed and explosiveness - they are #2 in the nation with 5 shorthanded goals. This has been a hallmark of great BC teams in the past so it's good to see BC threatening opponents while a man down... especially since they take so many penalties (by far #1 in the nation at 305 penalty minutes).
BC hits the ice on Thursday night against Notre Dame in their last game of the fall semester. Win this game and they'll go in to the break flying high. The improvement from last year to this year has been dramatic in just about every facet of the game so far; can they keep it up as the schedule strengthens?