Following the Boston University men’s hockey team’s season-ending loss in the NCAA Tournament to the University of Denver on Saturday, head coach David Quinn had a theory.
“It seems like our season ended at Notre Dame,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to us mentally. We were playing good hockey and we became a fragile group mentally.”
Considering BU’s lackluster postseason run — if you can even call it a run — where it barely knocked off a last-place University of Massachusetts Amherst team in the first round and then got railed by the University of Massachusetts Lowell the following week, that’s a fair assessment. BU’s last “feel good” victory probably came at the University of Notre Dame on Feb. 26, which works out to a full month of pretty disappointing playoff hockey.
But as some have mentioned in comment sections and on fan forums, it seems as if BU’s season began its downward spiral during and after the Beanpot final against Boston College. The team had just five wins in 12 games between the Beanpot and the final game of the season, with six losses and a tie mixed in.
Of course, we can’t really get into the heads of what was going on mentally during that span, but we can point to a few things in particular that we were able to see on the ice over the final weeks of the season that could possibly account for the slip-up.
Offense, defense or goaltending?
Twelve goals allowed in two games. That makes it hard to win at any level, especially in the NCAA against top teams like the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Denver.
And BU didn’t win either of those games, and none down the stretch in what became its final three games of the year. But who’s really at fault? Is it senior goaltender Sean Maguire, who didn’t look exactly like himself during the team’s postseason run? Based on a lot of the discussion on the live blogs here, some believe that to be the case.
But let’s set the record straight. Maguire was nowhere near as sharp as he had been earlier in the season during the past few games. For long stretches, like during the Beanpot, he was absolutely lockdown in the crease. He was far from it during the Hockey East Tournament and one game in St. Paul. But the onus should not fall squarely on his shoulders. Far from it, actually. Because without Maguire, BU maybe doesn’t even make it this far in the season.
Some soft goals were let in, yes, but Maguire’s defense in front of him was poor and did not play particularly well in its own zone. Especially against Denver, there were plenty of turnovers at the defensive blue line, and both he and sophomore Connor LaCouvee were hung out to dry multiple times.
This team’s defense was supposed to be the core, the big factor in why this year’s team would be in contention for another Frozen Four run. And, at times, the unit did play up to its potential. However, there were too many instances, like Saturday’s loss, where the D corps failed to show up.
Senior winger Ahti Oksanen said a lot of the talk and work in practice over the last two weeks was based on defensive zone coverage and just generally being more responsible with and without the puck. Maybe for the first 10 minutes of the game things looked better, but by the time BU failed to convert on its second power play of the first period, everything spiraled out of control.
The attention to detail and lack of control in the defensive zone allowed Denver to walk all over BU for most of the night. For the first time since Frozen Fenway in January 2014, BU gave up seven goals in one game. Defense clearly was an issue, but this argument almost becomes a moot point due to the fact the offense did next to nothing.
It wasn’t as if the offense just struggled against Denver, the issues seem to go all the way back to at least the Beanpot title game against Boston College. Consider this: BU played eight of its final 12 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament (one of those games being in the tournament against Denver). And in those eight games, the Terriers recorded just 11 goals. That’s 1.375 goals per game against tournament-level teams. Three times in those eight games, BU was shut out. The team was not once held goal-less in its first 27 games of the season.
For a team that averaged 3.18 goals per game, and was one of the higher scoring teams in Hockey East for most of the season, the offense sputtered at a time when it was needed the most. It’s hard to have the conversation about bad defense when the offense could only muster so little. — Andrew Battifarano
Greenway move to the first line
It’s hard not to take notice, specifically, of the impact on the offense when freshman forward Jordan Greenway moved back to the first line after playing 15 games on the second line with seniors Matt Lane and Ahti Oksanen.
Greenway had seven points in his final nine games on the first line, but had 15 points in the 15 games he played alongside Lane and Oksanen.
Lane, meanwhile, had three points in the final nine games without Greenway on his line.
In the 15 games he played with Greenway on his line, he had 16 points.
Oksanen, with Greenway on his line, he had 20 points in 15 games. Without Greenway, he also had three points in his final nine games.
Furthermore, in the span that BU had that combination of players on the second line, the team had a 10-4-1 record, and averaged 3.8 goals per game. After moving Greenway, the team went 4-4-1 and averaged 2.22 goals per game.
That’s a small sample size, and obviously other factors come into play, but that’s still three one-point-per-game players when they play together, and with Greenway’s removal from that line, two of them became disappointingly unproductive as the year wound down. There was something about that line that worked, something that clicked — probably some of the best chemistry we saw from anyone this season — and it got taken apart. — SK
Lack of adjustments, lack of accountability
Save for Greenway’s move to the first line, and a brief stint from Bobo Carpenter on the second line, we seldom came to the rink this season and were shocked by any sort of move on the line charts. That goes for both forwards and defense. And there were plenty of arguments from fans about lack of depth, lack of options, but here’s the thing: The Terriers still had options. Not many, but options existed.
The most prominent example of this came on the defense, though. It was something I asked in January when we were at the University of Maine — was Quinn just going to keep rotating that sixth defenseman spot between Brien Diffley and John MacLeod? Was that a tangible solution going forward?
He said he didn’t look at it that way, and he said he’d reward whoever was playing best in practice. Yet that remained essentially the defensive situation — Diffley in sometimes, MacLeod when he wasn’t — for the remainder of the season, with the other five spots locked.
In games where he had his entire defense, all eight players, at his disposal — no injuries, suspensions or World Juniors appearances — the locked-in pairs of Matt Grzelcyk/Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Hickey/Brandon Fortunato never changed. Not once, until Saturday’s game, when he put MacLeod back with Grzelcyk.
We don’t see practice, but we see the lack of adjustments during game time — and that suggests a lack of accountability. A bad performance won’t put your spot in the lineup even remotely at stake, and it didn’t seem like players were forced to prove anything.
Something I don’t think I’ll be able to let go of about this season: The defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the nation, and ranked 30th in the nation after Saturday’s game. It regressed from last year, and didn’t do anything to get better as the season went on. I might be a bit more sympathetic if they’d tried to mix it up during the season and it still didn’t work. But that didn’t happen.
Here’s the bottom line — BU was riding a short bench, but not an empty one. And even if you want to argue that BU didn’t have any further options, there’s still a huge difference between not having enough bodies and not changing anything with those bodies at all. — SK