Should BU’s special teams sound the alarms?

Photo by Gracie Davenport.

Hockey is a complicated game.

Every once in a while, however, hockey can be extremely simple.

“We didn’t get it done on the penalty kill, didn’t have an answer for it.” 

It was the first thing head coach Jay Pandolfo said when he sat down in the TD Garden press room. The penalty kill was the elephant in the room, a question that didn’t need asking. It wasn’t just a factor in Saturday night’s deflating 6-2 loss to Boston College in the Hockey East Championship, it was the story of the night. 

“That was really the biggest difference,” Pandolfo continued. 

The Eagles converted on four of their five power play opportunities. BU cashed in on just one of five — that goal coming during a five-minute major in the third period when the game, barring a miracle, was all but decided.

The Terriers’ 5-on-5 play was up to par with Boston College. The Eagles only scored one goal at even strength in the entire game. Unfortunately for BU, only 44 minutes of the game was played at five-on-five, the other 16 or so made the difference.

“I thought five-on-five, we played pretty well. We were pushing really well there in the second period, make it two to one and then we take a penalty with two minutes and 12 seconds left,” Pandolfo said. “You gotta kill the penalty.”

Four power play goals allowed is bad enough, but what makes it worse is the lack of time needed to get it done. The Eagles only averaged 49.5 seconds to score a goal during each power play. Throughout the season, BU’s opponents averaged about 65 seconds.

BC’s Will Smith got it started on an early power play. Smith was looking for classmate Gabe Perreault on the backdoor, but the puck ping-ponged off graduate defenseman Case McCarthy’s skate. The goal, albeit fluky, ignited confidence in what would become a historic night for the freshman forward who went on to net three more. 

“Those are always nice when you get a little lucky bounce there,” Smith said. “We were wanting to throw stuff at the net … it went in and got everything started.”

Only three more minutes ticked off before sophomore defenseman Lane Hutson was called for tripping, and only one more minute until a puck was in the back of the cage. The Eagles utilized their signature rush offense to put graduate defenseman Cade Webber and senior forward Nick Zabaneh out of position, giving Smith enough space to go bar-down on goaltender Mathieu Caron.

“They have some talented players over there, they don’t need a lot of space or time,” Pandolfo said. “Their top players can make plays and can make it hard on you, especially when you’re a man down.” 

BU answered with a snipe from freshman defenseman Gavin McCarthy in the second, but the Eagles’ Cutter Gauthier quickly seized momentum back on another power play. The sophomore forward’s goal showcased his elusiveness, Perreault’s ability to weave pucks and another BU defensive breakdown as Gauthier snuck around Webber to finish a backdoor tap-in.

“It’s on us on the PK to shut those guys down. We knew that they had a great power play coming in,” Case McCarthy said postgame. “Tonight, they just found a way.”

For the BU fan with oh-too-much hope that the BU penalty kill could make just one stop, Perreault scored a goal 13 seconds after another Hutson penalty in the third.

On the other side of the coin, the Terriers’ power play, which ranks second in the NCAA at 0.275 conversion percentage, flatlined. It’s arguably less on BU’s futility as it is a testament to the BC league-leading penalty kill that sits comfortably at a .900 success rate. 

“That’s the other part of it,” Pandolfo said. “They do a good job of blocking shots, getting their clears 200 feet and when you get a chance, their goalie is good.”

The Terriers will have a chance to right the ship against the Rochester Institute of Technology in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday. The Tigers have the tenth-most penalty minutes in the nation, averaging over 13 per game in the box. That’s the third most of any tournament team, but their penalty kill meets the challenge as fifth best in the nation.

It will be another unstoppable force and immovable object marriage for the Terriers who are pressured to keep their strength a strength when it matters most.

However, for what has been one of the country’s best D cores, the penalty kill has long been a liability. The good news is that Saturday night was an outlier, as bad as it gets; the bad news, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

BU allowed a power play goal in eight of the nine losses suffered this season, as well as both of the overtime losses. When giving up a power play goal, the Terriers are 9-8-2. In the five games BU allowed multiple power play goals, they are 1-4. 

The Terriers have only allowed more than two power play goals in a game just once this season — four to Boston College in the Hockey East Championship.

In a place where the Terriers’ penalty kill confidence may be at a season low, they need it to be at its best. RIT’s power play isn’t anything to write home about, but it also can’t be ignored. They may not have the potency BC has, but their top-15 conversion rate could pose a threat.

For a Boston University team that’s proven they can go toe-to-toe and beat any team in the nation (even Boston College), they must return to form or face a glaring Achilles heel at a time when one mistake could come at the cost of a season.

“We got to get past it, we’re still playing,” Pandolfo said. “Our guys are pretty good at responding, so this will hurt for a bit, but we got a good group in there, a mature group, and they’ll respond.”

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