Some thoughts and observations from Boston College's Northeast Regional triumph, topping Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth to advance to the 2016 Frozen Four:
1. We are spoiled. Very, very spoiled.
I know, we say this a lot. But it's important to really reflect on just how unbelievably lucky we are to be following this program. BC is a great power in hockey and will remain a good program even after the Jerry York era ends. But there's a difference between being a great power and what BC continues to accomplish.
York has taken BC to 12 Frozen Fours in the last 18 years. For context, Denver University - a historically great hockey program - has made 15 Frozen Fours all time. DU, Minnesota, North Dakota, BU and Michigan are the only programs in history to make more Frozen Fours ALL TIME than York has made with BC in just an 18 season stretch. That's just jaw-dropping. The list of schools that in their entire history haven't topped York's 12 Frozen Fours with BC includes great programs like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Harvard, Maine, Cornell, and UNH.
Think about how much college hockey has changed and evolved during this era of BC dominance. 15 years ago, UNH, Maine, and Colorado College were perennial contenders. They've all faded. Quinnipiac, UMass Lowell and Union basically barely existed on the national radar. Providence rose, and fell, and rose again. Conferences realigned. BU had a couple Frozen Four seasons and a few seasons in the cellar, and a lot of just OK seasons in between. And through it all, BC has been at or near the pinnacle of the sport each and every season.
My journey of being a college hockey fan has introduced me to great friends who support teams all over the country, and i find it important to remember that for fans of most programs - even really good ones - a chance to make a trip to the Frozen Four to see your team is a life-alteringly amazing experience, and a rare and special treat to be savored. For BC fans, it's become a springtime rite of passage.
I really didn't think BC was going to make it to the Frozen Four this time. I honestly thought Providence would win the regional, and I really didn't feel like the Eagles were going to be able to put it all together for two straight nights. It was pretty foolish of me to doubt. And now we get to enjoy it again. You can't win the national title every year, but if you can put yourself in position, and make the season last as long as possible - that's about as much as you can ask for as a fan.
Look, I get that some people don't watch or care about hockey. And that's fine. If that's the case, bully for you (though you're the one missing out). Nobody's making you care. Feel free to focus on other things.
BUT... if you do watch hockey... if you do care about it... if you do get why BC Hockey is so important to what Boston College is all about... then you need to remind yourself with frequency just how spoiled and lucky we are, results in other sports this year be damned. Ask any of your friends who went to BU or Northeastern or any of the UMasses or God knows how many other schools what they'd give to have just one program that produces the kind of unbelievable results this BC hockey program delivers for BC's students, alumni and fans almost every year. And be thankful.
2. Jerry York is a great coach, and he really showed it this weekend (hot take alert)
Yeah, I know I'm not going to win any awards for saying this, but Jerry York is very good at this coaching-hockey thing.
This past weekend was simply a masterful coaching job by Jerry York and the staff on two fronts: tactically and mentally.
In terms of tactics on the ice, BC seemed to correct for their mistakes and defensive weaknesses by putting a renewed emphasis on a careful, defense-first style that uses their elite, high-end skill to make opponents pay with limited opportunities. In the early shifts of the Harvard game it was evident that BC's offensive game plan often involved having one guy go in deep and try to make a play using individual skill, while two forwards stayed back, ready to either be set up on a great pass or backcheck hard if the puck goes the other way. In addition, the Eagles mostly sent just one forechecker frequently, but it was often a guy like Tuch or Wood who was able to use his speed and strength to get right in the face and put pressure on the opponent, while two other forwards dropped back toward the neutral zone.
In their own end, BC played solid defense, with forwards helping out their defensemen and largely limiting opponents to low-quality chances on the perimeter or from a place where Thatcher Demko could easily see and react to what was coming. They had their hiccups - particularly late against Duluth - but for the most part, BC did a great job of absorbing pressure without letting their opponent threaten too much.
BC also showed great discipline in waiting for their opportunities to break the other way. You saw a lot fewer stretch passes, and a lot more of Alex Tuch and Miles Wood (among others) noticing opportunities to skate it through the neutral zone and just use their speed to burn opposing defenses. BC picked their spots on when to do this, and largely avoided any attacks that left them vulnerable to an odd-man rush the other way.
One other move York made strategically was uniting the first power play unit of Tuch/White/Fitzgerald as an even strength line, and it paid dividends on Friday vs. Harvard, as that line was BCs best possession-driver, particularly early n the game before BC started absorbing more pressure. And of course Doherty's spot on a forward line (call it the 2nd or the 3rd, whichever you want) paid off with two goals Saturday.
More impressive than any strategic wrinkles, however, is how impressively York is able to get this team of high NHL draft picks and superstars to buy in to the team concept, and adjust their strategy in order to correct weaknesses and improve their play in the tournament. How many times have we seen highly talented, draft pick-laden teams that maybe weren't playing their best hockey just fold up this time of year? BU and Minnesota seem to make a habit out of it every year. BC's staff got the team refocused on playing hard and smart defense, cleaning up mistakes, blocking shots, and playing well enough in their own zone to limit opponents to low-percentage chances. Getting that kind of buy-in - particularly after a few tough weekends where it would have been easy for BC to hang their heads - is a testament to what makes Jerry York the greatest hockey coach of all time.
3. Miles Wood and Alex Tuch can change games for BC
We saw a whole new Miles Wood this weekend, one who looked comfortable and confident driving forward at full speed. He even felt confident enough to throw a big hit against Duluth (and thankfully, unlike what probably would have happened in a Hockey East game, the CRUNCH of the boards didn't immediately prompt the officials to put the arm up). More importantly, Wood showed some serious determination and attacking verve, with BC's second goal on Friday (tipped home by Austin Cangelosi after an astounding sequence by Wood) being a perfect example.
We all know just how good Alex Tuch is and how he can be a truly dominant player when he puts it all together, and we saw that this weekend. Nobody is stopping him when he gets off a wrist shot from a high percentage area like he was able to do against Harvard on Friday night. And few can deal with his freakish combination of size and speed. He's one of the guys capable of winning BC a game all by himself.
The Eagles will need similar performances from these two if they're going to counter-attack their way to victory against another possession juggernaut in Quinnipiac.
4. If BC is going to do any damage in Tampa, it's all going to come from how they play without the puck, because they will be without the puck a lot∫
As we repeated multiple times here last week, BC has been, on average, getting outshot in games since the Beanpot. They were outshot again by both Harvard and Duluth, and spent long periods of time in their own end against both. But they kept up their focus and intensity long enough to keep pucks out of their own net anyway, while being incredibly opportunistic and lethal going the other way.
That's going to have to be the blueprint for any Frozen four success. North Dakota and Denver are of course both elite teams, and Quinnipiac has been a possession machine for years. Expect a similar blueprint from BC against the Q. It won't be about quantity of opportunities, it will be about asking them count (while relying on team D and Thatcher Demko to save the day when necessary).