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December 9, 2013

Hockey Notebook

The seasaw that has been the Boston College season for the past several weeks finished the first half of their schedule on the upside this weekend, with a sweep of a home-and-home series with rival New Hampshire. Jerry York juggled his lineup again and there were positive results as scoring was spread out among seven players and offense wasn't all just Johnny Gaudreau and go. Defense wasn't bad either and, obvious to all, goaltending was outstanding both Friday and Saturday night. There is plenty of talent in the BC lineup, but have they come together as a team yet? Time will tell.

Here are a few fuzzy thoughts from the weekend:

• York played with his line combinations again for this weekend and, for now, they worked. History would remind us that York isn't finished fine tuning his lineup yet. Remember, he didn't hit upon Gibbons, Whitney and Atkinson until almost February in their championship season. Breaking up the Michael Sit and Destry Straight combination spreads goal scoring over all four lines. Playing apart, both players may go from goal-a-year types to goal-a-month players or at least goal-a-semester players. Do the math and that is quite an improvement. The Ryan Fitzgerald, Austin Cangelosi and Straight combination looked real good this weekend. More is expected offensively from Quinn Smith on the Pat Brown line, but he does contribute importantly in other areas. The top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold will surely be called the "best line in the country" by some as the season goes on. Hayes brings strength attacking down the middle while Gaudreau draws defenders to his wing. No goalie would like to see Bill Arnold charging to his net. York said this combination also gives him flexibility with his powerplay, if they ever get one. He wouldn't have to do any juggling to get them together.

• I've never seen Jerry York getting this mad at referees. At least not in public. After Friday night when the only penalty against UNH was negated by an "embellishment" call on Johnny Gaudreau, York said somewhat wistfully that "It might be nice to get a powerplay sometime." By 18:14 of the second period Saturday night York had seen enough and ripped into referee John Gravallese, shaking his head, pointing his finger and doing his best Jack Parker imitation as he questioned a call on Ian McCoshen. Despite York's protest, BC didn't have any powerplays over the weekend. Gravallese refereed both games. Again, take your choice, NFL replacement refs or Hockey East refs?

• No fooling, BC has real depth in the goaltending department. Brian Billett made 39 saves Friday night and Thatcher Demko stopped 28 on Saturday. Both goalies play cool and with confidence. Billett made every hard stop on Friday night as UNH outshot the Eagles 41-21. On one shot he was moving quickly right to left on his knees when the puck was redirected. Still sliding left, he got his right leg out and deflected a shot from a wide-open goalmouth. The two UNH goals came from mid-zone and beyond and although he might have been screened on each of them, they weren't the hardest shots he faced all night. Demko, who finally reached age 18 Sunday morning, was equally impressive in Durham. He anticipates plays extremely well, covers up and redirects rebounds, and sees the puck as well as a "phenom" should. "Goaltending was the key to this weekend," York said after the Saturday night game. "Thatcher played with a lot of confidence and the sense that 'I am going to stop the puck'." Demko will leave the team after exams next week to be with the USA team for the World Junior Championship in Sweden. Billett appears to be more than able to fill in for him. York still insists that he will go with a strict rotation of these two in the second half of the season.

• Back 40 or more years ago when I was a college hockey goalie myself, there were always certain defensemen that I preferred to see coming over the boards when the going got rough. If I was playing for BC today, In would be looking for, in this order, Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen, Mike Matheson, Danny Linell, Teddy Doherty, Isaac McLeod and Steve Savage. Santini is already a fan favorite and has a long career ahead of him if he just stops getting suspended for knocking guys out cold. He can be a superstar at BC and in a few years a superstar in the NHL. Linell has a value that is obviously not visible to many BC fans, but he keeps the puck moving well and oftentimes the best defense is a good offense. Savage showed promise back in October, but he has regressed steadily since then. He will be back, though.

• BC's play in the slot improved on both ends of the ice this weekend. When Holy Cross came to BC after Thanksgiving, their defense cleared the area in front of their goalie like a snowplow pushing a two inch snowstorm away. This weekend BC skaters held their ground, picked up rebounds and scored several times with strong second efforts, ala Cangelosi, Doherty, Arnold, Santini and Fitzgerald. A team can't rely on a Johnny Gaudreau breakaway for every goal and these "dirty" goals are often what wins games. Defensively it was much more obvious this weekend those UNH players were not welcome in front of Billett and Demko. Saturday night's UNH goal was the only UNH goal of the weekend scored from down close. Brain cramps do happen and Santini didn't have his man on that back door score. Nobody's perfect.

• Those odd man rushes that Boston College has been giving up all season have to stop. Three-on-ones are really two-on-ones on the other side of the ice and that is not a good plan to follow if you want to prevent being scored on. The speed of BC's backcheckers and the fine goaltending has prevented outright disaster so far. Isaac McLeod has been victimized too often and his regular partner, Danny Linell has been left trying to cover for him.
• Kevin Hayes scored the game winner in Durham with a sudden move to his left near the faceoff dot early in the third period. UNH goalie Casey DeSmith had no chance as the puck flew by him high to his left. It was a big time goal from a guy who is finally becoming a big time player. Kevin is a different type player than older brother Jimmy, who scored too Saturday night, for the NHL Florida Panthers. If Jimmy is a tight end, Kevin is a wide receiver. It was Kevin's second score of the weekend and tenth of the year. Jerry York says Hayes is playing better than he ever has before.

• With four players off to the World Junior Championship until January 5, the Eagles will be a bit shorthanded as they play twice in the Three River Classic and once at Frozen Fenway against Notre Dame. Billett can cover for Demko and York has a few extra forwards, like Evan Richardson, Cam Spiro and Matt Gaudreau who can fill in for Fitzgerald. There are no spares to duplicate Santini and McCoshen while they are away and Scott Savage and Travis Jeke will probably be asked to give it their best.

• In the NHL, Chris Kreider of the Rangers also scored Saturday night. Patrick Wey made his debut on defense for the Washington Capitals and defenseman Brian Dumoulin will play his first NHL game Monday for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Wey is a big, soft spoken strongman whose favorite course at BC was philosophy. He had a few rough years at BC, with mono, a broken wrist and a severed tendon in a foot. Sources within the Hershey Bears, Washington's AHL farm team, say that Wey is one of the nicest guys to pass through that town.

• Downsides from the weekend? UNH took 70 shots on goal in two games and BC took 40. UNH dominated on faceoffs, taking 32 to BC's 24 Friday night and 29 to BC's 24 in Durham. The only stats that really matter are the goals scored, but such deficiencies often end up biting you before the season is over. Also, BC forwards still often wait for the perfect setup pass skating into the offensive zone. When they click you have goals to remember. When they don't, you have missed scoring opportunities. Sometimes it is better to just shoot the puck and go hard for the rebound.
The second half of the season, the 'trophy season as Jerry York is fond to say, begins January 4 when Notre Dame visits Fenway Park. It probably won't take long into January before everyone knows if this seesaw is staying up or heading for ground again. Boston College has the talent. It remains to be seen if they have the "team."

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