BOSTON -- Round 3 of the Boston College-Northeastern contretemps this season will take place on the big stage, as the Eagles and Huskies both won the right to battle for the 62nd Beanpot crown next Monday at TD Garden.
The championship game will be a rematch of last year's final, which the Eagles won handily, 6-3. It's unlikely the Eagles can expect another lopsided score, for one simple reason: This year's edition of Jim Madigan's Northeastern is a vastly improved squad.
"Jim's done a tremendous job with his club. He's got some really special players," BC coach Jerry York said. "They're getting some excellent goaltending from Clay Witt. It's no miracle, it's no surprise that they've won so many games there. I think Jim feels it's by far the best team they've had there since he's been there."
The Eagles took their two league games against Northeastern this past fall, 4-2 at BC's Conte Forum on Nov. 1 (a game that wasn't decided until a late empty-net tally), and 4-3 at Matthews Arena the following night. Whether the third time proves the charm for Northeastern, or the Eagles continue their dominance over the Huntington Hounds, depends on several key factors, all of which were on display Monday night.
Contrast in styles
Boston College plays with a regal bearing that does justice to the school's mascot, the bald eagle. Like the eagle, York's squad has a quick-strike predatory nature that is both relentless and lethal.
"We've played a lot of good teams this year, and none better than them," first-year BU coach Dave Quinn said after the Eagles outlasted the Terriers 3-1 in Monday's nightcap. "They're deep in all three positions, in the nets, on the blue line, and up front. And they're well-coached."
A game against Northeastern, meanwhile, can quickly become a street fight. BC has proven it can play this style, if pushed, but this is clearly the Huskies' game of choice. Northeastern's semifinal match against Harvard featured 76 minutes in penalties. Plus, the two second-period goals that broke open that game were scored directly in front of the Harvard net, a clear indication of Northeastern's willingness to go to the dirty areas.
But BC also has some brawn. "They're so talented, they're so deep. They're big, they're huge," Quinn said. "The days of people talking about the small BC teams, just throw that out the window. You look at that lineup and they're big, and they're heavy, and they compete."
Skill continues to be BC's calling card, such as creating scoring off pinpoint passing plays. Ryan Fitzgerald's opening goal against BU was proof positive. The freshman from North Reading, Mass., was the recipient of a classic passing sequence that started with Scott Savage at the right point, moved to Teddy Doherty below the left point, and wound up on Fitzgerald's unmarked stick by the right hashmarks. Fitzgerald didn't miss, firing the puck over BU netminder Matt O'Connor's glove.
Boston College has one of college hockey's most prolific lines, with senior Bill Arnold centering classmate Kevin Hayes and sensational junior Johnny Gaudreau. The three have an almost telepathic understanding of not only where to be, but where their linemates will be.
The Eagles' second goal against BU was a textbook example, with Gaudreau shoveling the puck to Arnold just as he was being knocked down. Arnold, running out of time and space, flipped a backhand pass across the crease to a wide-open Hayes, who easily potted his 20th goal of the year.
"They're so dangerous," Quinn said. "The Gaudreau/Arnold/Hayes line, every time they're out there, you're holding your breath."
Will youth be served?
A considerable amount of credit for No. 11 Northeastern's turnaround this season is being given, and rightly so, to Madigan's freshmen. But these aren't your run-of-the-mill, fresh-faced first-year students.
Despite having 12 freshmen, the average age of the Northeastern squad is 21 years, 8 months. Rookie Mike Szmatula, who torched the Harvard Crimson for three points (a goal and two seeing-eye assists) turns 22 in August. The fact that they're older, said Madigan, has helped them transition to the college game quickly.
"We're happy with all our freshmen," Madigan said. "They've integrated really well with our upperclassmen. That's what's nice to see. It's truly a fun group to coach.
"I truly like the team, the makeup, the chemistry, and how they support each other," he said.
On the other bench, Boston College has younger players (average age: 20 years, 5 months), and is actually the third-youngest team in the country. Goaltender Thatcher Demko is the youngest player in Hockey East, having just turned 18 in December. However, the BC underclassmen are battled-tested, often playing against opponents who are much older. Plus, they have a coaching staff that preaches that pressure is a friend, not an enemy.
"We tell our players an awful lot that pressure's good for you," York said. "It makes you get up in the morning, makes you work harder. It makes you more alert. So, we welcome pressure. We have a good team, we know that, and now we're expected to play very, very well and win some trophies. That's something we embrace."
Northeastern's Witt has been patient, serving as Chris Rawlings' understudy for the better part of three seasons. But questions about Rawlings' mental toughness dogged the tall netminder from British Columbia, and Witt has added a certain amount of grit between the pipes for the Huskies. His performance shutting out the Crimson on Monday was nothing short of stellar.
Assuming that Demko gets the start for BC, the youngster will need to match Witt's cool, calm demeanor. Against BU, Demko was solid but not spectacular. Several times the freshman from California was caught down and out of his net, only to have his defense cover for him (or, in one epic BU fail, Terrier Matt Lane missed an open net). His flubbed clearing attempt led directly to BU's only goal of the game, but he made amends with a potentially game-saving stop on Kevin Duane with less than a minute to go.
"He's big, he's square. He makes a great save at the end of the game just because he's in great position," BU's Quinn said. "He understands what his strength is, and it's his size. He doesn't waste any movement, and he doesn't waste any energy."
York had even higher praise for his young netminder. "He's been a good goaltender for a lot of years, so I don't think it's a surprise that he could handle this and play well," York said. "He's getting more confident. He handles the puck well. He reminds me an awful lot of Cory Schneider at the same age."
Playing with a lead
Scoring first will be important. BC is 15-0-1 when scoring first. Northeastern is 12-3-2. When leading after the first period, BC has registered a 12-0-2 mark. The Huskies are 9-0-2.
Both teams were first on the board on Monday night, with eerily similar shots, top shelf over the goalie's glove hand. Getting the first goal on Monday might be a difference-maker, as the Eagles aim for their fifth straight Beanpot title, and the Huskies try to bring it back to Northeastern for the first time since 1988.