BU Championship Another Mark in Bounce-back Season
By Pat O’Rourke
BU News Service
The BU men’s hockey team won its first Hockey East title in six years on Saturday night, a 5-3 win over UMass-Lowell at the TD Garden. The Terriers (24-7-5) will be a one-seed in either the East or Northeast Regional of the NCAA Tournament, heavily favored to return to the Garden on Apr. 9 for the Frozen Four.
The Terriers conference title comes just one year after one of the worst seasons in program history, going 10-21-4 in 2013-14, David Quinn’s first behind the BU bench. Their .286 winning percentage was the lowest since 1954-55, when they went 4-19.
“We had a good core coming back, and we knew that,” said Quinn. “We knew with the class coming in that we’d have a better hockey team. How much better? I didn’t know. What our record was going to be? I didn’t know.”
Among the returners entering the season included Evan Rodrigues, Danny O’Regan, Cason Hohmann, Ahti Oksanen, and Robbie Baillargeon. Junior defenseman Matt Grzelcyk was back after a shoulder injury limited his sophomore season to 19 games.
In addition, the incoming freshman class was the considered by most to be the best in the nation. The group was headlined by phenom Jack Eichel, a generational talent projected to be a top-two pick in the upcoming NHL Draft. Freshmen defensemen John MacLeod and Brandon Hickey were draft picks of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames, respectively, in 2014.
But there were questions. How would the returning group respond to the previous season? Would the large freshman group make the adjustment to college hockey? Could Matt O’Connor take the reigns as the No. 1 goaltender? Quinn’s blueline corps had four freshmen and a sophomore on it. The elder statesman of the group, Grzelcyk, had a year-and-a-half of college hockey to his credit.
BU was the youngest team in the country, picked to finish sixth in Hockey East prior to the season. But Quinn saw something in this team.
“I felt and we as a coaching staff felt that if things went well, we could have a chance to win a national title,” said Quinn. “I know that may have sounded absurd based on what happened last year, but we really felt that and we told the team that.”
Things have gone well for the Terriers this season. O’Connor (2.11 GAA/.928 PCT) has been the ace goalie the Terriers were looking for, and is garnering attention from NHL teams as a result. Grzelcyk has averaged nearly a point per game (36 points in 37 games), while the rest of his unit have been as good as any in the country. Eichel (66 points) has come as advertised, while raising the level of linemates O’Regan (45 points) and Rodrigues (57 points). Oksanen, a defenseman his first two seasons at BU, was bumped up to right wing, and is second on the team with 23 goals.
Quinn believes the team began believing in its abilities when Michigan St. and Michigan visited Boston on Oct. 24-25. The Terriers took both games, including a third period comeback with the 14th-ranked Wolverines that was decided on a Matt Lane goal with 3:50 left in regulation. The weekend led to the Terriers being bumped up to sixth in the USCHO.com poll from 12th the week before.
“I think we have a little bit of a swagger to us,” said Quinn. “But it’s a respectful swagger. We know we have to work hard, we know we’re not that much better than everyone else.”
BU won its first Beanpot since 2009 this season, defeating Northeastern in the championship game after taking down Harvard in double-overtime in the semifinal. The Terriers win-total (24) is their highest since 2008-09, when they won 35 contests en route to the national championship. If they win it all again this season, they’ll finish with 28 victories, just the second time they’ve hit that mark since 1997-98.
“Eventually when you keep winning hockey games, it’s more than just puck luck,” said Quinn. “We realized what our capabilities are and we’ve put ourselves in a good position.”
With their next loss set to be their last, BU is guaranteed to go through the season without losing back-to-back games. They were shutout just once — a 2-0 loss to Dartmouth on Nov. 30 — and have been held to less than two goals just three times. The Terriers have scored four or more goals in seven straight games.
“I think [the fact we’re the youngest team in college hockey] gets lost in the success we’ve had to this point,” said Quinn. “But I think that speaks volumes to our leadership.”
Quinn has drawn back to the veteran leaders in the BU dressing room at many points of the season. He’s spoken volumes of his three captains; Grzelcyk, Hohmann, and Rodrigues. Saturday he mentioned other veteran members of the team like Matt Lane, Mike Moran, and Oksanen, just to name a few.
“I’m not just talking about the seniors,” said Quinn on the leadership in the dressing room. “I’m talking about our juniors, our junior captain [Grzelcyk], and even the sophomores.”
The Terriers are four wins shy of the accomplishment their coach deemed them capable of achieving, an accomplishment five other teams to don the scarlet-and-white have managed to achieve.