What makes BC hockey so good?
In their 10th Frozen Four since '98, Eagles have success secrets figured out
The reactions, after a while, all start to look the same. Ask opposing coaches and players what makes the No. 1 Boston College Eagles so good, and you're likely to get a shake of the head, a wry smile, probably a deep breath.
Then you'll hear a litany of reasons, many sounding a familiar tone. Consider this sampling from last weekend's Northeast Regionals, where Air Force (2-0) and Minnesota-Duluth (4-0) both fell victim to the Eagles, as BC ran its current winning streak to 17.
"They have a great team," Minnesota-Duluth captain Jack Connolly said. "I mean, top to bottom, they're a sound team."
"Yeah, you can look up and down their roster, and see all their lines producing points for them," UMD's Brady Lamb said. "They're very deep that way."
"They are a quick team," Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. "I mean, they've got nine NHL draft picks and I'm sure a bunch of [others] could go play pro after [college], too."
"You don't want to get into a shootout with BC," Air Force's John Kruse said. "That's not going to turn out well for you. They have so much skill offensively."
"They've got great depth, they move the puck, they've got great team speed, they get all their players involved offensively," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We were very impressed with their team, which we knew going in. You don't win 30 games and be on a streak that they're on by not being very good."
But what, specifically, makes this Boston College squad (31-10-1) so formidable? It's a question every other Division I college hockey coach would love to figure out, especially since BC coach Jerry York and his staff seem to annually catch lightning in a bottle, with 10 Frozen Four appearances since 1998.
The Eagles have an abundance of blue-chip talent, rolling four lines with little drop-off in offensive pop on the top three. All 12 forwards can score -- defensive specialist Barry Almeida has 22 goals this season, almost doubling his career output -- and all back check like banshees. The Eagles have big, agile defenders who can headman the puck and clear space in front of their own net. And goaltender Parker Milner looks capable of stopping every shot he sees right now.
"If you're going to be one of those teams right at the end, you have to be strong in every phase [of the game]," said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who is preparing his Golden Gophers to face BC on Thursday, April 5. "Goaltending is huge this time of year, and I don't think it's any secret their run began with the way Milner has played over the last couple months. That really helps.
"You have to have a good defensive corps," Lucia said. "And you have to be deep up front. Especially down the middle. When you look at Boston College right now, they've got three very good lines that can score, a big, strong defensive corps, and a goaltender that's really stepped up and carried the mail for them. So without question, they have all the ingredients, and that's why they're favored to win the thing next week."
Only one of BC's top nine forwards has fewer than 26 points on the season. Chris Kreider (22 goals, 43 points) is a marquee player and top scorer, but others like Paul Carey (15 goals, 27 points), Pat Mullane (10 goals, 36 points) and Steven Whitney (13 goals, 35 points) have seen marked improvements in their production. But none has been as surprising as senior Almeida (38 points) and freshman Johnny Gaudreau (20 goals, 41 points).
Even York admits that he'd have a tough time preparing to play his own team.
"I'm not sure, if I was the opposing coach, which line I'd try and check [against]," he said. "Is it Billy Arnold's line? Is it Pat Mullane's line? Is it Jimmy Hayes'? We're pretty deep up front. That's a challenge for coaches -- 'If we have one checking line, who do we put them against?'"
Serratore, whose Falcons battled BC tough before dropping a 2-0 decision on Saturday, said his team was like an orchestra, with most players bringing a singular talent that fits into the team framework. By comparison, York manages a team of multidimensional prodigies. And that's not always easy (just ask any NHL coach).
York, though, sees himself as a very different type of conductor.
"There's always ups and downs [throughout the season], but our focus is always on 'Let's try to win a national championship,'" he said. "There's no magic formula to it. Get a lot of good players and keep them on the same train throughout the year. That's one way to get here."
As Minnesota's Lucia notes, simply getting talented players doesn't guarantee success.
"You have to bring those players along," he said. "There's no question that BC's been on a phenomenal run here over the last decade. You've got to give those players some leeway to make the plays they need to make on the ice. But you still have to develop the team concept -- the importance of not only your star players, but your roles players.
"And then there has to be the buy-in factor, because many times, on a talented team, you can get some jealousies involved," Lucia said. "Who's playing where, who's on the power play. Getting that buy-in factor of every role becomes critical throughout the season for a successful team."
To offset the risk of inter-squad rivalries, BC's staff employs a tough-love approach, making sure players understand there's competition for every position, every night, because that's in the team's best interest. Milner is probably the best example, having stepped up his midseason workout regimen to reclaim the No. 1 spot in net. In the past 17 games -- all Eagles wins -- he has been absolutely rock solid, highlighted by the back-to-back shutouts in the regional that earned him Most Outstanding Player honors.
York will also bring in high-profile figures from the sports world, such as former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, to drive the message home. Earlier this month, before BC's quarterfinal series against UMass, Celtics coach Doc Rivers visited the Eagles' locker room to stress the importance of team unity.
"He said, 'No one player is bigger than the team,'" York said. "He said the Big Three [Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen] didn't get there by accident. They really, really work at their game.
"He talked about hard work and how hard it is to win on a continual basis. He called it a Celtic thing," York said. "We feel we have something that's just called a BC thing, with the traditions here, the hard work from the players, the atmosphere in our locker room, the culture we have. We feel very proud of this particular team. They work very hard, they stick together as a team."
A perfect example is the attitude of Gaudreau, who has put up gaudy numbers along with MVP trophies in both the Beanpot and Hockey East tournaments, both won by BC this year. But the freshman hasn't gotten a swelled head.
"Johnny's skills are incredible," senior captain Tommy Cross said. "But the biggest thing is he's a team-first guy. When you get a star player that's a team-first guy, that's a really good recipe. He's stayed humble."
An old hockey axiom maintains that good goaltenders need to have short memories, and a bad goal has to be forgotten quickly if they're going to bounce back. But for a team, a long memory can be a good thing.
In the case of the Eagles, last year's traumatic opening-round ambush by Colorado College, which flattened BC by an 8-4 score that didn't indicate how lopsided the game was, proved to be a motivating factor.
"This started last year, after we lost to Colorado College," said Arnold, a sophomore. "A few weeks later, we started our spring workouts, and carried on through the summer. And we came to this season a new team. We knew we had to work hard, and we battled throughout the whole season.
"We hit a rough patch there [in early January], but come this ending third of the season we've been playing our best hockey," he said. "And we have to keep getting better every day, in practice and in the weight room, leading up to the Frozen Four."
Grace under pressure
This is a team that has the firepower to blow opponents out of the building, and the grit to win one-goal games. That comes from being battle tested, which builds confidence. Much has been written about the team's long bus ride home from Orono, Maine, in late January, after the Black Bears swept two from the Eagles.
During that trip, and the following week, the players and coaching staff did a fair amount of soul-searching, and rededicated themselves to training harder off-ice, and practicing and playing better on it. But York also stated flatly that the team, which had featured Milner, Chris Venti and Brian Billett in goal during its 2-4-1 midseason slump, needed one of the three to really step forward and grab the starting spot. Because nothing promotes team confidence like good goaltending.
"If you're going to have a good club, and you're going to be a successful coach, you have the GAGG rule," York said. "Get a good goaltender. I think that ability to save pucks helps the confidence of all our players. We just become a better offensive team."
"Parker's a competitor," Cross said. "He's a hard worker. He's earned his minutes. His confidence in himself has just helped his game. He's gotten better since day one."
Milner's play has been so good over the past two months that it's had a demoralizing effect on opponents. "I didn't feel like we played bad. I felt like we had chances," Connolly said after UMD's 5-0 loss to BC. "Milner stood on his head, and made some great stops for them."
Milner, meanwhile, readily shares credit with the rest of the team, saying that every Eagle has played a role in the team's current run.
"Our team is a lot different," he said. "Everyone is playing really good defensively, and that defense is leading to strong offense. Our success is due to a full team effort."
BC players act like choirboys off the ice, and, like their nickname suggests, ruthless birds of prey on it. This is a team that knows how to go for the jugular, and finish off opponents.
"I compare Boston College to that Michigan team we played, because they've got that great speed and they want to impose their will on you in every facet of the game," Serratore said. "Even watching their penalty kill. I mean, our penalty killers are instructed: If they get possession of the puck in the defensive zone, you ice it 200 feet and get off the ice and we get fresh troops. They get it, and they attack. I guess that's how you score 11 shorthanded goals.
"It just shows you how much confidence and swagger that they have," he said. "They'll attack you even when they're a man down."
Even if they're not scoring, BC's fleet forwards are doing the dirty work.
"People talk a lot about the small, skilled forwards that come through BC," Cross said. "And that's true; they are small and they are skilled. But they are tenacious and they're really strong. A lot of them are thick guys so they're not easy to bump off the puck. They don't have the size, but they have the heart."
That heart was on full display Sunday night, when the BC forwards went toe-to-toe with Minnesota-Duluth despite giving up a considerable size difference, and won most of those one-on-one skirmishes.
"They made it difficult for us tonight," UMD's Connolly said.
Good teams produce good recruiting classes. For years, BC has enjoyed a roster that is filled with either NHL draft picks or players who end up having respectable pro careers without being drafted (like the Lightning's Ryan Shannon).
"That kid who scored their two goals," said Serratore last Saturday, referring to BC's Kreider, a first-round draft pick of the Rangers. "Where's he playing in three weeks? New York?"
But hindsight is 20/20, and many NHL draft picks don't last in college (see Chris Bourque, Boston University). The BC staff not only has a shrewd eye for talent (and sometimes luck, in the case of Gaudreau, who originally committed to Northeastern), but they carefully hone that talent once the players step on campus.
"We filled a lot of holes this year," said York earlier this month, referring to the departures of Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons, Jimmy Hayes and Joe Whitney. "We lost an awful lot of goals there, so we weren't quite sure where they were going to come from, but we've had some players really step up."
The team also lost rugged defenseman Philip Samuelsson and netminder John Muse, but did benefit from the return of Kreider and Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin, in addition to defender Cross, a Bruins draft choice who finally put together an injury-free season.
Keeping quality players an extra year, said UMD's Sandelin, gives the Eagles "great consistency. They've got a great coaching staff, and obviously they recruit great players that fit their program."
"The difficulty nowadays is just trying to keep those guys long enough," he said. "Some programs are able to, because of that, kind of keep reloading."
Proving Sandelin's point are players like Milner and defenders Edwin Shea, Patrick Wey, Isaac MacLeod and Patch Alber, who have all improved their games. That, York said, is the result of a long line of strong senior leadership that is also a part of the BC tradition, where each Eagles captain is a link in a solid-gold chain.
"There's a big trickle-down effect," Cross said. "[Former Eagles and current NHLers] Ben Smith and Matt Lombardi, they learned from the guys above them, and we learned from those guys. [There are] a lot of constants from year to year, and at the same time, each group is different."
Minnesota's Lucia has a week to formulate a game plan that will help the Gophers hand this BC team its first loss in 18 games. The Eagles, meanwhile, have a week to improve. If that's possible.