You could hardly blame the casual college hockey fan for looking past Monday's opening round of the Beanpot. Most observers expect to see Boston College and Boston University squaring off in the finals for the 22nd time in the 61 years of the storied tournament. That's the scenario that the rotating schedule presents, with BU taking on Northeastern in the opener, and BC battling the Crimson of Harvard in the nightcap.
The reality, however, is that this year's edition of the most parochial of tournaments is rife with uncertainty. No. 5 Boston College (15-7-2; 17 Beanpot crowns), in an almost eerie encore of last season, is stumbling after the semester break, having lost five of its last nine games, including a two-game debacle at home against Maine. In fact, little has seemed predictable at The Heights since coach Jerry York recorded his record-setting 925th career win against Alabama-Huntsville in late December.
Since then, the Eagles have been in a rut, going 3-5-1, winning occasionally (5-2 at home against New Hampshire, and a 9-3 spanking of Northeastern) but losing with alarming regularity (an 8-1 rout by Minnesota, a 5-2 home defeat to Massachusetts, and two to suddenly resurgent Maine). It's almost as if York's squad lost its focus at the same time the head coach required surgery for a detached retina, and the high-powered offense (3.42 goals a game; fourth in the country) has sputtered.
Even York's return to the bench has done little to stem the tide, as the Eagles fell twice at Conte Forum to the Black Bears, 4-1 and 3-1. It was precisely the same two-game set last season that spurred the Eagles' remarkable 19-game winning streak on their way to the 2012 national title. However, the losses on their home sheet had to hit the Eagles hard.
York's squad did take a step in the right direction with a 4-1 win on Friday against Vermont, but the Catamounts aren't considered top-tier competition. A spot in the Beanpot final might be just the thing to kick start another Eagles run this year.
BC's opponent in the nightcap, Harvard (5-14-1; 10 Beanpot crowns), has struggled to find any kind of consistency in the wake of losing at least four players as a result of a widespread campus cheating scandal (including highly touted sophomore goaltender Steve Michalek and three defensemen). While Ted Donato's team appeared poised to produce something special after a terrific run in the ECAC playoffs last season, the feel-good storyline of last March appears to be a distant memory. Which is what you'd expect from a team ranked 12th in the ECAC in scoring (2.05 goals per game) with two freshmen and a sophomore as its leading scorers.
Still, the Crimson have shown moments of brilliance and the ability to win big games, such as the 4-1 triumph over Cornell on Nov. 16 and the 6-5 overtime victory against BU on Jan. 9. The bad news? Harvard has dropped seven straight since that epic win over the Terriers. Unless junior goaltender Raphael Girard (3.35 GAA; .902 save percentage) can pull off a minor miracle on Monday night, the Crimson's chances of playing the late game the following Monday appear slim.
Like BC, No. 11 Boston University (13-10-1; 29 Beanpot crowns) has been erratic of late, going 3-5-1 since Christmas. That stretch includes heartbreaking losses to Harvard (6-5 in overtime) and Northeastern (6-5) within a nine-day span in January, a 6-0 whitewashing at the hands of Denver in the Hall of Fame Game on Dec. 29, and a 5-1 loss at UMass on Friday.
Freshman goaltenders Matt O'Connor (2.90; .910) and Sean Maguire (2.62; .915) have looked like the second coming of Kieran Millan on some nights, and the second coming of the Beatles' "Day in a Life" ("Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire") on others. Neither can afford an off night in the Beanpot.
Up front, BU is loaded. Except for the shutout against Denver and Friday night loss in Amherst, the Terriers have been able to put the puck in the net. Leading the offensive charge for Jack Parker's crew is sophomore Cason Hohmann (6-17-23), freshman Danny O'Regan (9-13-22) and senior captain Wade Megan (12-7-19), but the Terriers have six more players with 12 or more points on the season. Northeastern's goaltender -- either senior Chris Rawlings (2.88; .910) or senior Bryan Mountain (3.47; .902) -- will need to be sharp to prevent BU from advancing to the final.
Northeastern (7-13-3; four Beanpot crowns) could prove to be this year's dark horse. Jim Madigan's team already has registered wins this season over all three potential Beanpot opponents, downing BC 3-1 in the season opener, bruising Harvard by a 5-1 margin on Dec. 29, and edging BU in a wild 6-5 affair on Jan. 18. On the flip side, the Huskies recently got manhandled by the Eagles (a 9-3 drubbing, the day after NU squeaked by BU) and don't have a win in their last four games (0-2-2).
Plus, the Terriers have history on their side, holding a 31-7 Beanpot advantage, including wins in the last 15 meetings. BU, as its 29 Beanpot crowns attest, has proven it can handle the big stage. Whether the Huskies can take a page from Coach Madigan's playbook (two Beanpot crowns as a player in 1984 and '85, and one as an assistant coach in 1988) and advance to next Monday's final remains to be seen. Keep an eye on former Terrier Vinny Saponari. Northeastern's captain has scored the Huntington Hounds' last two game-winning goals against his former club.