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February 4, 2013

Beanpot Title Defense Begins

Jerry York always refers to this part of the Boston College hockey schedule as the "trophy season." Maybe the rest of us should add to that by also calling it the "question mark season." Do we shuffle lines, change the goalie, or fire the coach (yeah, right)? Can we call up a defenseman from Hershey? How many trophies can they win? Where are the Boston College Eagles going from here?

Remember last year, the National Championship season? After 24 games the Eagles were 14-9-1. They were 5-6-1 in their last 12 starts. Parker Milner was on the bench. They got wiped out by UMass and hit rock bottom when they lost a couple at Maine. Sound familiar? A year later are we, as Yogi Berra said, seeing déjà vu all over again?

This time around their overall record stands at 15-7-2. In their most recent 12 games they stand at 5-5-2. UMass rolled over them again. They lost back-to-back games to Maine. They've had some injuries. The question is, can this year's version go on a role like last year's team did, winning everything from here to the end, gobbling up those trophies (Beanpot, regular season, Hockey East tournament and NCAA tournament) in the same fashion as last year?

"I certainly can't expect us to win 19 in a row," York admitted following the second Maine game. "We certainly have to improve from here."

The team may have showed a shift into improvement mode last Saturday night at home against a UVM team that, like Maine, is capable of playing better hockey than their record shows. Vermont went ahead on a soft goal at 4:04 of the first period to start the game. It didn't look good for the Eagles when defenseman Travis Jeke went to the bench for slashing two minutes later. It looked even worse when a Vermont slap shot broke penalty killer Patrick Brown's stick in half. Thirty seconds remained on the penalty. The puck went back to the UVM point and the unarmed Brown challenged the puck and blocked a shot with his body. He jumped back to his feet as the puck came out to the other point man. Brown challenged that guy too and once again he blocked the shot, this time with a kick save that made old-timers think of Jacques Plante. The penalty ran out, The Conte Forum crowd went wild with a standing ovation for Brown and from there he and his teammates regained control of the game, and maybe their season.

Last season the team credited a lot of soul searching on their bus ride back from the Maine defeats that set them on the road to winning trophies. Looking back we may point to Brown's energy in the first period Friday as a turning point for this year's team. Or maybe not.

Going into Monday night's Beanpot opener against Harvard you have to wonder if this year's team has the depth and the skills necessary to dominate from here on. There is no questioning of the talent of the top tier BC players, but until Friday they were all slotted on the top two lines. There was Pat Mullane, Johnny Gaudreau and Steve Whitney. They could all skate, and pass and score, almost at will. The second line of Kevin Hayes, Bill Arnold and either Destry Straight or Brendan Silk had more brawn, but they could skate and pass and score goals too. Patrick Brown's line, with Brooks Dyroff and Silk did what was expected of them. As Brown told Eagle Action recently, they brought energy to the mix. The other line of Michael Sit, Danny Linell and Quinn Smith could all skate well enough, but they seemed to have an aversion to scoring goals and the best that could have been expected of them was to keep the other team off the board while the aces rested up on the bench.

That all changed Friday night. You definitely could say, so far, so good. Linell skated on the right side with Mullane and Gaudreau. Whitney played the right side with Arnold and Sit. Kevin Hayes centered for Straight and Silk and Smith was with Brown and Dyroff. There were skill players three lines deep and Smith scored a goal while his brawny linemates kept trying to knock UVM players down. Vermont was limited to that one goal and the Eagles broke out of a scoring slump with four of their own.

Throw out the nine goals at Northeastern two weeks ago and the five goals in beating UNH at home, the Eagles were firmly in the habit of scoring once or twice a game. Aces like Gaudreau and Arnold were making opposing goalies look like all-stars. Those short, quick passes have always characterized the BC offense as they move down the ice lacked the zip that they once had. Plays were being broken up before the puck went from one Eagle to another. And, when BC rushes were broken up, opposing teams took advantage and went on an attack of their own. As Maine's Jon Swavely described his own goal against BC, "We all noticed on tape that once they get the puck, they don't play any defense. When we broke up the play it left us open to score."

Not that all looks right after the UVM game, but it was a start. Johnny Gaudreau scored one goal, but he had four breakaways that didn't go in. He has all the move to befuddle any goaltender, but then he has been a bit casual about getting the puck into the net and that results in saves that never should have been. His goal was a beauty and he recognized that teams are now starting to cover his passing lanes better. So he looked off his teammates and put all his energy into a wrist shot which went like a laser into the UVM goal.

The Beanpot opener will be another key step for Boston College. Harvard may be an outmanned bunch who sits somewhere in the middle of the ECAC standings, but BC has recently lost to teams who were equally disregarded. The first trophy is now at stake. The Boston Garden will be packed with fans. And, they will all be there looking for answers from this year's Boston College Eagles.

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