Boston College hockey up for challenge

BOSTON -- Make no mistake, Boston College hockey coach Jerry York knows exactly the odds he's up against this season as his Eagles look to defend the national crown they won this past spring. Minnesota (2002-03) and Denver (2004-05) were each able to repeat earlier this decade, but an East Coast squad hasn't won back-to-back championships since Boston University did so in 1971 and 1972.

That hasn't discouraged the pundits, who pegged York's Eagles as the overwhelming preseason favorite in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men's College Hockey Poll. BC (29-10-3 overall last season; 16-8-3 Hockey East) garnered 28 of 34 first-place votes and 504 points, easily outdistancing North Dakota (4 first-place votes, 462 points). Hockey East coaches agreed, giving the Eagles the top spot with a virtual unanimous vote (York cannot vote for BC).

"That's the best hockey team I've seen in a long, long time," said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. "They could get 40 wins."

But for York, the memory of a lackluster 2008-09 season (18-14-5 with no NCAA bid) on the heels of BC's 2008 championship is still fresh. The same thing happened to York's Eagles after their 2001 title run, when they responded with an 18-18-2 mark, and again missed the NCAA cut.

On Wednesday, though, York looked cool, calm and composed during the Hockey East media day at TD Garden. The No. 1 ranking, he said, is simply "an indication that we have a lot of good players."

Like their crosstown rival Boston University, the Eagles don't rebuild as much as they reload. The leadership void created by the loss of senior captains Matt Price, Ben Smith and Matt Lombardi is expected to be filled capably by seniors Joe Whitney and Brian Gibbons and junior Tommy Cross. Add senior goaltender John Muse, who already lists two national championships (2008 and 2010) on his glittering collegiate résumé, and the Eagles have the players who can crack the whip.

"Obviously, we'll get everybody's best game every night," said Muse. "I think our guys have prepared this summer. At the end of the day, it will all come down to how hard we work and how much fun we'll have."

As for coming into each game with a bull's-eye, Muse replied: "When you come to Boston College, there's the expectation to win every year. So I don't think we'll get worn down by expectations."

York concurred, saying that his players understand that Boston College is never a date opponents look past. Though the coach prefers to nurture his team during the course of the season, allowing younger players time to develop and mature, he knows the No. 1 ranking brings added pressure from the first drop of the puck this year.

"We're accustomed to that," said York. "We also have high expectations. Now it's time to tee it up."

York can afford to be eager. Cross, the highly regarded blueliner (a Boston Bruins draft pick), is finally healthy, and York expects the junior to have a breakout season. Cross heads a young defensive corps that made huge strides last season (Brian Dumolin led Hockey East with an astounding plus-40 rating as a freshman). Muse and goaltending partner Parker Milner shore up the net. And up front, the Eagles return their top three scorers and seven of their top nine from a team that last season outshot opponents 33 to 26.5 per game and outscored them 171 to 104. Leading that magnificent seven are junior Cam Atkinson (53 points) and senior captains Gibbons (50) and Whitney (45).

And more reinforcements are on the way. York's incoming class, with three NHL draft picks, including first-rounder Kevin Hayes (Chicago), is again rock solid despite the loss of NHL draft pick Cody Ferriero (San Jose) to Northeastern.

Ferriero won't have to wait long to get a close look at the team he spurned, as the Eagles and Huskies clash at Northeastern in the season opener on Saturday, Oct. 9. NU's Cronin knows his Huskies will have their hands full.

"BC has so much returning talent," said Cronin. "So much firepower."

York, however, isn't making predictions. He expects another season-long battle in Hockey East play, pinpointing Maine (ranked No. 2 in the coaches' poll), New Hampshire, Boston University and Merrimack as teams with which he's particularly concerned. Asked to handicap his team's chances of repeating as NCAA champs, York, who has the second-most wins (850) in college hockey history, opted to hold his hand close to the vest.

"That's a question that has to be answered in late April," York said.

Brion O'Connor is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.