It would be hard to blame anybody from Boston University if they still cannot watch highlights from last season’s national championship game. BU had the best player in college hockey last year in Jack Eichel, and it might have had the best team in the nation too if not for the final 8:39 in the title game.
The fateful play that changed the legacy of the 2014-15 BU Terriers should have been harmless, a simple dump-in from Providence defenseman Tom Parisi with 8:39 left in the third period. BU had a 3-2 lead and nothing to worry about on that particular play. It was a puck that should have been deflected back to the boards or possibly passed to a stray BU defenseman.
Instead, goaltender Matt O’Connor inexplicably misplayed the puck, kicking it into his own net to tie the game at 3-3.
BU never recovered from the gaffe. PC’s Brandon Tanev fired a shot off a faceoff past O’Connor with 6:17 left to give his team a 4-3 lead it would never surrender. The Friars became the champions of the college hockey world, and the Terriers could not write the perfect ending to what had seemed like a storybook season.
Turning many pages
Providence and BU will meet for the first time since that game this weekend, as they square off in a Hockey East home-and-home series starting on Friday night.
The team the Terriers will field for this series is significantly different than the one that lost that championship game, however. They do not have O’Connor in net anymore – he signed with the Ottawa Senators over the summer. Instead, they started the year with a platoon of senior Sean Maguire and sophomore Connor LaCouvee.
Eichel, of course, is lighting the lamp for the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL this season. BU’s second-best offensive player from 2014-15, Evan Rodrigues, is also gone to the Sabres’ organization.
The Terriers are no longer the dominant force that won every title it played for last season except for the national championship. Instead, they hold a modest 5-3-0 record, and are still looking for their identity.
BU has taken a few positive steps forward in the past two weeks. After a disappointing loss to Connecticut on Oct. 27, the Terriers gained strength from a gritty 5-4 overtime win over then-No. 8 Denver. They followed that with a sweep of Northeastern last weekend.
BU’s captain, defenseman Matt Grzelyck, is also back after missing the first six games as he finished his recovery from a summer knee surgery.
Grzelyck and the Terriers will have to put the past behind them and prepare for another strong Providence team this weekend, however. PC has yet to play anybody in Hockey East, but has looked good out of conference. The Friars enter Friday’s matchup with a 6-0-1 record.
The good news for BU is that the Friars have yet to face many strong teams this season. Five of their wins came against currently sub-.500 teams in Colgate (4-5-0), Holy Cross (3-5-0) and Ohio State (1-7-0). PC had a great showing at Miami (5-4-1) in a 7-3 win on opening night, but settled for its lone tie of the season the following night against the same RedHawks.
Diligent defense a must
The key areas of focus for BU against Providence over this series will be in playing a complete game; getting a good performance out of LaCouvee (who appears to be the starter in net after starting the past five consecutive games); and presenting Providence with a dynamic offense.
Goaltending is not the strong spot for BU that it was last season. The Terriers defense ranks 44th in the nation with a 3.25 goals-against average, and PC’s Trevor Mingoia and Mark Jankowski can easily make a mockery of the BU defense if the Terrier blueliners and netminder do not play their best hockey of the season.
Up front, BU needs Danny O’Regan to start finishing on more chances. Although O’Regan has an admirable 11 points in eight games this season, nine of those points are assists, and he does not seem to be living up to his capability to finish chances that he has shown in the past.
O’Regan had 23 goals last season and 16 goals in his freshman season. While his numbers are bound to decrease this year without Eichel and Rodrigues passing to him, he is typically more balanced in terms of his goals and assists.
BU would also like to get more out of junior Robbie Baillargeon, who has three points in eight games so far. If Baillargeon starts finding his way onto the scoresheet more, BU will be able to field three dynamic scoring lines.
Then there is the issue of playing a complete game. The Terriers nearly gift-wrapped a win for Northeastern last Friday, when they surrendered four second-period goals thanks to multiple defensive lapses.
They had a similar issue in their overtime win over Denver, a game that never should have gone to overtime. BU allowed the Pioneers to score twice unanswered in the third period, one of those two goals being a shorthanded tally.
When BU has been on its game this year, it has looked like a high-caliber team that can control the pace of play and dominate any opponent. BU at its best seems capable of beating Providence.
But when the Terriers are off, they are really off. There is no absurdly talented offensive player to rely on this season, nor is there a game-saving goaltender. BU will not be able to steal a win away from Providence. It will have to earn every point it can claim.
If the Terriers focus too much on their emotions from last year or let up at all this weekend, they will pay for it in the Hockey East standings. If they play like the team they are capable of becoming, however, they just might be able to enact a sliver of revenge by serving the Friars their first loss of 2015-16.