Pluses and Minuses: O’Connor’s strong play in net helps Terriers advance to Hockey East title game

Matt O'Connor. PHOTO BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Matt O’Connor. PHOTO BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

For the second time in three seasons, the Boston University men’s hockey team will play for the Hockey East championship.

Facing off against a red-hot University of New Hampshire squad that had won nine of its last 10 contests, the Terriers (24-7-5) ricocheted from yet another slow start to best the Wildcats (19-19-2), 4-1, Friday night at TD Garden.

The Terriers will have little time to rest following their victory, as they will face off against two-time defending conference champion University of Massachusetts Lowell Saturday night.

As with every hockey game, there were a good amount of positive and negative takeaways Friday night. Here they are.

Pluses:

O’Connor stabilizes Terriers in uneven first period

Fresh off of earning Hockey East Second Team All-Star honors Thursday night, junior goaltender Matt O’Connor lived up to newly awarded accolade against the Wildcats, standing tall in the Terrier crease to the tune of 32 saves — his highest save total since stopped 32 shots against the University of Vermont on Jan. 23.

The Toronto native especially came up big over the first 20 minutes of play, negating a multitude of sloppy plays from the blueliners in front of him by holding an opportunistic and aggressive Wildcat offense to just one goal.

A pivotal moment came in the closing minutes of the stanza, with UNH holding onto a 1-0 advantage. As the Wildcats vied for yet another tally, forward Andrew Poturalski fired a puck on net that a sprawling O’Connor deflected at the last second with his pads, keeping it a one-goal game. Less than 20 seconds later, the Terriers capitalized, with senior assistant captain Cason Hohmann lighting the lamp at 17:38 to knot the score at one goal apiece.

O’Connor is now 21-3-4 on the year with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.

MacLeod impresses in return

Despite sitting out the past three games due to an upper-body injury, freshman defenseman John MacLeod failed to show any rust in his return to action Friday night.

The blueliner was steady out on the ice, tying defensive partner Matt Grzelcyk with a game-high plus-four rating on the night while also earning his seventh assist of the season on Hohmann’s first-period score.

The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect also paid dividends on defense, stopping a potential Wildcat goal in the third period. With the Terriers clinging to a 2-1 lead, sophomore defenseman Doyle Somerby sent a shot from the blue line that was blocked by a UNH skater, generating a breakaway opportunity for New Hampshire.

As the UNH skater coasted into the Terriers’ zone, MacLeod hustled back and swooped into the skater’s lane, disrupting his easy look on net.

Good timing from Chase Phelps

Freshman forward Chase Phelps picked an awful good time to score his second goal of the season.

With Friday’s match locked in a 1-1 draw, the Terriers’ fourth line buzzed around the UNH net, attempting to generate some semblance of an opportunity against New Hampshire goaltender Danny Tirone.

Junior forward Mike Moran coasted the puck along the end boards to sophomore forward Nick Roberto, who motioned from behind the UNH cage and put the puck on net. As the puck settled near the crease, Phelps quickly flipped it over Tirone, handing BU its first lead of the night.

It was the Shattuck St. Mary’s product’s first goal since Nov. 29 against Colgate University.

Eichel keeps doing Eichel things

While BU’s formidable first line was mostly held in check over the first 40 minutes of play, freshman center Jack Eichel could not be muted for long.

The young forward capped the Terriers’ scoring on the night with two goals in the final 10 minutes of play, both off of rebound offerings off the stick of senior assistant captain Evan Rodrigues.

With his two strikes, Eichel has extended his point streak to 11 games, notching 23 points during that stretch. Now standing at 63 points on the season, Eichel needs just one more to stand as the second-highest scoring freshman in NCAA history.

Minuses:

New day at the garden, same slow start

For the third time this season, the Terriers dropped the puck at TD Garden. And for the third time in this arena, the Terriers underwhelmed with their performance in the first period.

BU appeared sluggish and indecisive both in terms of defense and offense over the first 20 minutes, with the Wildcats outshooting the Terriers by an 11-8 margin.

While it appeared that the Wildcats consistently outplayed their opponent throughout the period, O’Connor’s strong play and Hohmann’s goal were able to help the Terriers escape the stanza still locked in a 1-1 tie.

“After the first period we all knew we didn’t play well. I’m careful to say that, because I think a big part of that had to do with the way UNH was playing,” said BU coach David Quinn. “For us to come out of that period 1-1 I thought it bode well for us moving forward because I knew we couldn’t play much worse than that. Hopefully we get off to a better start tomorrow night because I don’t think we’re going to be able to get away with it with Lowell.”

Freshman blueliners struggle in opening frame

Throughout the first period of play Friday night, BU’s four freshman defensemen sure looked like … Well, freshmen.

A key factor in the team’s lackluster performance in opening frame can be attributed to a few choice plays from its rookie defensemen. In particular, Brandon Fortunato and Brandon Hickey coughed up a costly turnover in BU’s own zone, directly leading to a goal from UNH forward Tyler Kelleher at 14:34.

For more on the Terriers’ sluggish defensive play (and subsequent redemption), check out Andrew’s sider.