November 17, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Rivalry brings out BU's best

Boston College forward Chris Kreider (left) jostles for position with Sean Escobedo of Boston University during their game Sunday. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

By Andrew Merritt

Boston University vs. Boston College has long been a throw-out-the-records kind of rivalry. This season, though, only one of the two Commonwealth Avenue powers – formerly top-ranked BC – has lived up to its preseason billing as one of Hockey East’s best teams, while BU got off to a 3-3-1 start riddled with ugly efforts, including the 7-1 drubbing handed to the Terriers by UMass-Lowell on Nov. 5.

Funny how playing an eternal rival brings out the best in a team.

The Terriers had a possible breakthrough weekend, punctuated by Sunday’s dominating 5-0 win over the Eagles. Four Terriers had goals in the game, with Wade Megan scoring BU’s second and fifth goal, an unlikely double-dip of a power-play goal late in the first period and a shorthanded tally with less than 90 seconds to go in the third.

Arguably more important than the five on BU’s side of the Conte Forum scoreboards was the zero on the BC end. Kieran Millan’s 21-save shutout was, rather amazingly, the first the Terriers have ever hung on Boston College in 27-plus years of Hockey East play.

While Millan deserves a healthy cut of the credit for the clean sheet, it was just as much a result of the aggressive, effective defensive game the Terriers put together – something you wouldn’t even think to say about BU during the first five weeks of the season. The Terriers, who returned almost all of the starters from last year’s talented but underachieving team, looked on paper in the preseason like the team to beat, but played on the ice through the first month and a half like a team to beat.
In particular, the Terriers seemed to play up or down to the assumed level of their opponent, with memories of a season-opening trouncing of UNH fading in the harsh light of last week’s moribund loss to UMass-Lowell.

“I think our team has had that tendency in the past, we maybe don’t respect the opponent, and you’ve seen that in a few of our losses,” said BU captain Chris Connolly, who had a pair of assists Sunday. “That’s a message we’re trying to send to the rest of our team, that regardless of who we’re playing, it’s going to be a battle night in and night out. It’s essentially a longer college football season in that every game matters.”

If this is the start of a great awakening for BU, the seeds were sown a while back in a loss to Holy Cross and a hard-fought three points against UMass. Those seeds got a shot of fertilizer in the pitiful loss to UMass-Lowell, too.

“It was the absolute lack of respect, or lack of effort, or lack of both up at UMass-Lowell,” BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) said. “We were flabbergasted that UMass-Lowell was that good, well, how can you not think they’re that good? So that was a real mistake on (the coaches’) part, we couldn’t get them ready for that. They were embarrassed by that, no question about it, and they came back and they were geared up to play. It was nice that he had the two top teams in the league to play after last weekend.”

Though second-place Merrimack pulled out of Aggannis Arena Friday night with a win, BU was already starting to show signs of life, holding a 2-1 lead for 40:51 until Brandon Brodhag tied it for the Warriors with 1:56 to go, followed by Merrimack freshman Connor Toomey’s (Billerica, Mass.) game winner 22 seconds into overtime.

“We certainly played up tonight, and we played up Friday for the most part,” Parker said Sunday. “I don’t know why we would play down to anybody, because this league is so tough. We’ve already shown the rest of the league that. We’ll certainly remember it, I think.”

Parker also said the Terriers are finally starting to “feel like a BU hockey team” after the three-point weekend, and if that’s not enough, he was also feeling frisky enough to fire a shot across the bow of the Boston College fans.

“I thought it was fabulous that (the sizable BU traveling party) were all there in those game jerseys,” Parker said. “Those game jerseys cost a lot more than those (BC ‘Superfan’) T-shirts.”

Guess the rivalry’s on, then.

Game of the Week

UNH at Boston University, Saturday

The first time these two teams met was the season opener, and a 5-0 BU win on Oct. 8. But the Wildcats have improved steadily since then, and suddenly both squads look a little more like their old selves, setting up the possibility of some real fireworks in Boston on Saturday night.

Hockey East power ratings

1. Merrimack (8-0-1, 6-0-1 HEA) – Friday’s win over BU was the second straight overtime victory for the Warriors, but they needed only 20 seconds to win it on Billerica, Mass., native Connor Toomey’s goal in the extra session, and are now the No. 2 team in the country for the first time in their Div. 1 history.

2. Boston College (9-3-0, 7-2-0) – No. 3 BC took care of one Beanpot rival with a 2-1 win over Northeastern Friday, but played its worst game of the year in Sunday’s loss at home to BU, and with a Friday night clash with No. 4 Notre Dame on the docket for this weekend, it’s a bad time for their game to start looking suspect.

3. Providence (6-3-1, 4-2-0) – Two wins over dead program walking Alabama-Huntsville won’t do anything in the standings for the Friars, but they showed they’re still rolling as they enter Friday’s game against Northeastern.

4. UNH (4-4-2, 3-3-1) – The Wildcats couldn’t have been happy about coming out of a one-game trip to last-place Vermont with only one point after Saturday’s tie, especially after taking a lead into the final two minutes of regulation before H.T. Lenz evened it up with 1:40 to go.

5. Boston University (4-4-1, 3-3-1) – BU has been playing .500 hockey almost the whole season, but Sunday’s 5-0 stomping of BC gives them a little extra bounce with a pair of home games against Vermont and UNH on tap this weekend.

6. Maine (3-6-1, 3-5-0) – The Black Bears took it on the chin against a surging UMass-Lowell team in Maine’s second straight two-loss weekend.

7. UMass-Lowell (5-3-0, 3-2-0) – Just like that, the River Hawks pulled themselves into a winning record, both overall and in league play, striding into Alfond Arena to snatch a pair of wins away from Maine.

8. UMass (2-4-2, 4-4-2) – Conor Allen gave the Minutemen their first big highlight of the young season with a hat trick against Holy Cross Friday night, and a 4-2 win over Northeastern the next evening pushed the Minutemen ahead of the Huskies both here and in the standings.

9. Northeastern (1-7-2, 1-7-2) – It’s now more than 30 days since Northeastern has won a game, and coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) sounds frustrated with quotes in the press about every night being the same old, same old for his team.

10. Vermont (1-5-1, 0-4-1) – UVM picked up its first point of the season, and while they’re still winless in Hockey East play, the late-game heroics that led to Saturday’s tie with UNH could give the struggling Catamounts a boost before the holiday break.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.