Last year was supposed to be their year.
The Boston College Eagles had, perhaps, the most dominant hockey team in the country during the regular season. Thanks to an overpowering offense led by Cam Atkinson, Brian Gibbons, Jimmy Hayes, and Joe Whitney, the Eagles averaged four goals a game and displayed a speed and skill level that was rarely seen at this level, at least in this country. To complete the unbelievable level of talent, the Eagles also had one of the best netminders in the country in John Muse between the pipes. Muse had an incredible season, posting a 27-6-1 record along with a .922 save percentage which placed him among the leaders in the country.
The team dominated Hockey East, winning 20 games in conference play and finishing with 41 points. They went on to win the conference tournament by beating Merrimack in the championship game, their second consecutive Hockey East tournament crown. In addition, the team won its second straight Beanpot trophy with two dramatic overtime wins (first BU, then Northeastern).
With both trophies in hand, the Eagles appeared ready to defend their National Championship when the brackets were announced. Then, the tournament started, and things went horribly wrong. Colorado College got on the board quickly in the opening round, and then scored again. And again. And again. By the time it was over, the Eagles had absorbed an 8-4 loss to the Tigers and the dominance the team displayed all season was nothing but a memory.
It wasn't long after that the exodus began. The Eagles lost six of their top nine scorers from that team including 50 point men Atkinson and Gibbons. Along with the departure of the man affectionately known as "The Moose", the overriding thought was that the BC hockey team was going to have a ton of holes to fill this season. Dare I say it, but there was the potential that this would be...a rebuilding year.
But, as any fan of Ohio St. football or Kentucky basketball will tell you, you never rebuild at those powerhouse programs, you reload. When it comes to college hockey, Boston College certainly falls into that same elite category as the Buckeyes or Wildcats.
While this team hasn't been quite as explosive as last years group, it might actually be more balanced. The team has 10 players who have scored at least 20 points this season, including freshman Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau is the best example of how dominant the BC hockey team is under legendary coach Jerry York. Less than 12 months ago, the New Jersey native was getting ready for his senior prom, and now he's anchoring an offense (along with Chris Kreider) that helped the Eagles to a unanimous No. 1 ranking and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament which begins Friday.
The dirty secret about last years Eagles team was the defense. While Muse was phenomenal for most of the year, the defense in front of him was not. On four occasions during the final six weeks of the season, the Eagles surrendered at least four goals in a game, and they allowed six goals in three of those. It got swept under the rug for the most part because they won three of those games thanks to that incredible offense, but the one game they didn't win was the NCAA tournament game.
This years team though has been much better defensively, especially in the last few months. This team hasn't surrendered more than two goals in a game since late January, a game that also marked the start of their current 15 game winning streak. Goalie Parker Milner has been outstanding in the second half of the year and has raised his save percentage to an elite .931 while posting a 25-5-0 record overall. Beyond Milner, the veteran defense in front of him has been outstanding. After watching last years late season defensive meltdown, upperclassmen Brian Dumoulin, Tommy Cross, and Patch Alber have raised the level of their games this season and kept the crease relatively clean and let Milner do the rest.
While this group doesn't possess as much raw talent as the much more highly touted group from last year, the balance and depth seems to be better and has them in position to win their third National Championship in the last five years. The road to Tampa won't be easy though. On the surface, opening round opponent Air Force (4:00pm EST, ESPN-U) doesn't seem to pose much of a threat, but likely regional final opponent Minnesota-Duluth certainly does. The Bulldogs are the defending National Champions and haven't lost much from last years group. Assuming they beat a depleted Maine team on Friday, that game would be must-see TV. Luckily, the game will be played in Worcester and should be a defacto home game for the Eagles.
Once in the Frozen Four, absolutely anything can happen, but with Coach York behind the bench, you'd have to like the Eagles chances to hang another banner at Kelly Rink next fall. Regardless of how the tournament turns out though, it's important to remember that going into this season, it was widely expected that Boston University would be the best team on Comm Ave. The fact that the Eagles are sitting at the top of the mountain heading into this tournament is a testament to the job that York has done this season (maybe his best ever) and the job he's done turning Boston College into the premier hockey program in New England.