February 11, 2014

Beanpot 2014: Eagles soar on more than just talent

By Andrew Merritt

Boston College's Michael Matheson (5) picks up one of the Eagles' 23 blocked shots in Monday night's Beanpot final, a 4-1 victory that had as much to do with grit as it did with glamour. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

BOSTON – The numbers are staggering. The plays are eye-popping. The talent is nearly unparalleled.

There are a lot of ways to measure the quality of this year’s Boston College team. The statistics work quite well, from the Eagles' obscene 4.38 goal-per-game average (more than half a goal better than next-best Quinnipiac) to their best-in-the-nation unbeaten streak, which hit 15 games with Monday night's 4-1 win over Northeastern in the Beanpot final.

And there are, of course, the individual numbers. Johnny Gaudreau had a goal and an assist to extend his personal streak of games with a point to 24 – the longest such streak in the country – and he and linemates Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.) and Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) are on an absolute tear, with goals in 13 of the last 15 games.

But there's an element of the Eagles' game that often gets lost amid all the talk of Gaudreau's Hobey Baker chances, his line's lethal scoring prowess, and the team's overall talent level, which is perhaps the highest of any program in the country.

It doesn't show up on a scoresheet, because it's almost entirely unquantifiable. It's not glamorous, and rarely ends up on any highlight reels. But it's laced into everything the Eagles do, and it has quietly been a big reason for the program's immense success over the last decade-plus.

"The biggest secret about our team is how hard guys work," said Hayes, who was named the Beanpot MVP in an incredibly close vote split between him and Northeastern goaltender Clay Witt. "People don’t realize it because we have flashy players like Johnny, Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.), Mike Matheson. It’s something we kind of enjoy, everyone thinks ‘oh, BC’s coming in, we’re gonna hit them hard,’ but we kind of accept it, and from the seniors down, we hold each other accountable to work hard."

The Eagle work ethic was on display throughout Monday night's championship game, which was about as entertaining an affair as the venerable Beanpot tournament has seen in a long time. Until BC pulled away with three goals in the final 5:30, it was anybody's game – a tantalizing opportunity for Northeastern, which saw its Beanpot drought extended to 26 years without a title.

But the Eagles' win didn't just happen because of Hayes' game-opening goal, or because of Gaudreau's hard-earned empty-netter that made it 3-1, or even captain Patrick Brown's two-goal night, which included the game-winner.

It happened in part because of plays broken up by active sticks, on puck battles won along the boards, on stifling forechecks and clogging physicality in the neutral zone. It happened, said coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.), because the Eagles aren't just a collection of highly-skilled players. They may perform like an all-star team at times, but that's because behind the scenes, they're anything but.

"If you just have good players, but they won’t commit to the team, to the offense-defense part of the game, you’re never going to win championships," said York, who won his eighth Beanpot, tying the legendary Snooks Kelley (Cambridge, Mass.) for the BC record. "Our kids understand that. (Brian) Gionta started it with us, his work ethic was just off the charts, and it followed with Ben Smith, Ryan Shannon, right down the list, (Nathan) Gerbe, Cam Atkinson.

"It’s never been about ‘hey, I’m just gonna go out there with skill.’ They want to win trophies, they want to win championships. A lot of teams have good players, but they don’t put the team first. We’ve kind of made that part of our whole culture."

That culture starts when the cameras are off, the doors are closed, and the seats in the arena are empty.

"Practice is very up-tempo, between our four coaches, they hold us all accountable, and guys kind of get on each other if they’re not working hard," Hayes said. "It’s kind of a fun atmosphere."

Hayes, like Gaudreau and Arnold, is expected to produce the points for BC. That line alone has produced 57 of the Eagles' 127 goals this year, and the only player in the country who can top Hayes' 48 points this season is Gaudreau, who's running away with the Hockey East and national scoring race with 58 points (25 goals).

Yet it was Brown, the senior captain who has never scored more than 10 goals in a season, who had the biggest night for the Eagles on Monday. After Hayes opened the scoring and Northeastern freshman John Stevens tied it in the second period, the 1-1 deadlock lasted until the 14:30 mark of the third. Stevens and Brown battled in front of Witt as the puck came to Isaac MacLeod, and by the time MacLeod unleashed a wrister from near the blue line, Brown had fallen to the ice.

That didn't matter to Brown, who's the latest in a line of Browns to play at BC, including his father, Doug, and his uncle Greg, an assistant on York's staff. But Patrick isn't cut from the exact same mold as his father, who played 15 years in the NHL, or as his uncle, an Olympian in 1988 who had a 12-year career in the NHL and Europe.

This Brown isn't blessed with the same kind of skill, and has had to work every day to earn his spot on the team. After bouncing in and out of the lineup during his first two years at the Heights, he gained a foothold last year, and was voted captain by his teammates for this, his senior season.

Hard work is not an unfamiliar concept to Patrick Brown, and it showed in his Beanpot-winning goal, which he scored by tipping MacLeod's shot while seated on the ice, with his back to Witt, and with Stevens hanging over him.

"It was a special play and I will remember that for a long time,” York said.

People won't remember a lot of the hard-working plays the Eagles made during the game. They won't remember Brown lifting a Northeastern stick midway through the second period to keep a play alive in the offensive zone. They won't remember defenseman Danny Linell hounding Northeastern's Cody Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) as he cut through the slot to grab a pass from Torin Snydeman (Groton, Mass.) early in that period, preventing an almost sure goal.

They won't remember Linell, later in the second, laying out to block a shot by Northeastern's Zach Aston-Reese, briefly preserving a 1-0 Eagle lead – one of a whopping 23 Husky shot attempts that never reached goaltender Thatcher Demko, blocked shots being one of the few numbers we can use to see how hard a team works.

But even if they don't remember anything beyond Brown's goal, which earned the venerated top spot on SportsCenter's Top Plays segment on Monday night, Brown and his teammates know there's more to them than flash.

"I’m not sure how much credit you guys give us or not but we hold ourselves accountable," he said. "Everyone working hard every day in practice, no one taking days off and no one hiding. So we’ve got talented guys but they’ve got to work hard too and the guys with less talent have got to work harder."

A lot of the questions asked of the Eagles, and especially York, can really be boiled down to "why are you guys so good?"

There are a lot of ways to answer it. But for York, it comes down to the total commitment to a team ethos, which despite all of the highlights and gaudy numbers, has more to do with attention to detail, effort, and work ethic.

"In any sport, that’s how you win championships," York said. "They’re a gritty bunch – even Johnny Gaudreau, he battles for pucks, he battles. They all leave their egos at the door; That’s why we’re good."

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com