NCAA Hockey 101: Boston College plays through turmoil

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NCAA Hockey 101: Boston College plays through turmoil
NCAA Hockey 101: Boston College plays through turmoil

Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko has a .936 save percentage in 18 games this year, and that's after playing about a month and a half of .903 hockey. He has six shutouts already, and almost 1,100 minutes played.

He is a major reason the seventh-ranked Eagles had just four losses in 18 games through the first half of the season.

He also didn't play for the first time all year this past weekend in a major series with No. 3 Providence College. That's because he is out with an unspecified upper-body injury for an unspecified amount of time.

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With backup goalie Chris Birdsall also on the shelf, the Eagles coaching staff had to plumb the depths of local junior hockey on short notice, and came up with Ian Milosz, a 6-foot-7 netminder from the low-tier USPHL (not to be confused with the USHL), to fill in on some very, very short notice.

The task itself was pretty daunting, all things considered. You generally don't want to throw a goalie from a low-level junior league into a game against any college hockey team with just a day or two of practice under his belt. You certainly don't want to do it against the No. 3 team in the country that, until a few weeks ago, had gone 15 games without a loss. And certainly not with four very, very crucial league points on the line in a conference with very little breathing room at or indeed near the top.

This was by far the most important series to the college hockey landscape this past weekend. And it might not be all that representative of what we can expect from either team.

Milosz, pressed into service for these high-pressure games, did about as well as could be reasonably expected. His .899 save percentage doesn't exactly overwhelm, but he stopped 62 of 69 on the weekend, and was at least effective once he got over some pretty obvious nerves on Friday night. He was also .914 at 5-on-5, which isn't terrible.

In the end, BC romped to a 7-3 win in Milosz's debut, then came from behind to wrench a four-all draw at Providence the next night.

"The story of the game has to be Ian Milosz coming off the Junior Bruins [of the USPHL] and playing arguably one of the best teams in the country. I thought he gave us a phenomenal performance," BC coach Jerry York said after Friday night's win. "I was trying to just think, what are his thoughts going into the game? Just meeting new teammates, stepping into this situation, and he responded very, very well.”

Friday he stopped 24 of 27 in a game in which Providence's effort was, shall we say, flat. Coach Nate Leaman didn't have a lot of nice things to say about the performance, but also thought his own coaching wasn't up to snuff in that one, as BC scored early and often.

Part of that, York said, was that the Eagles wanted to play well in front of him. They ended up blocking seven shots on the weekend and only gave up a handful of looks that were particualrly dangerous, some of which Providence buried, and on others they flat-out missed the net or just fumbled away.

“I think for sure, you gotta tighten up and play harder because we've just seen Ian two practices, so it's hard,” York said. “We were depending on Thatcher for so long here, and all of a sudden a brand new guy steps in. So I think there was a little extra [effort] to block more shots tonight.”

The other and perhaps more important thing that sparked the Eagles, losers of three straight games, was the return of freshmen Colin White (from World Junior) and Miles Wood (from injury). White had a hat trick and an assist on Friday before being held scoreless the next night, and now sits on 11 goals and 27 points in just 18 games. Meanwhile, Wood returned after playing just one of the Eagles' previous three, and had an assist in the blowout win.

That filled out the lineup pretty effectively for BC, and allowed York to do a bit more to roll all four lines instead of relying heavily on the top three instead. And that kind of offensive balance came in very handy indeed the next night.

That's because Providence opened a 3-1 lead with a furious finish to the first period, then stretched it to 4-1 early in the second. Teams generally do not come back from down three goals to teams of Providence's quality, regardless of the talent level they posses. But BC's talent is prodigious, and it was a weird game anyway. There were two first-period goals reviewed, both of which overturned Providence scores, and the Friars had come out flying, attempting more than 30 shots in the first period alone. But as the game wore on, score effects and effort led to a shift in the proceedings.

Nonetheless, Providence finished the night with close to 60 shot attempts at full-strength alone.

“We had the lead 4-1 and I just thought we were a little too cute,” Leaman said. “We got away from what was giving us success and the game opened up a little bit. That was to their advantage. We were cheating a little bit offensively and gave up quite a few odd-man rushes in the second period, and that's their game.”

BC ended up tying the game early the third period on a partial break for forward Chris Calnan, who buried it as BC held on for the rest of regulation and overtime to claw out a tie they arguably didn't deserve, having been outshot 42-32. Milosz made 38 saves, some of which were on scary looks for a talented Providence team. York actually attributed the comeback to some lucky bounces.

But those count just the same as the highlight-reel goals the Eagles were scoring the night before, so no big deal.

This was, actually, the third straight game between the two league rivals. They also played in the consolation game of a holiday tournament a few weeks back, and Providence took that one, 2-1. So they finished their season series 1-1-1, which feels just about right for two clubs of this caliber, both of whom have struggled recently. 

Providence would probably like to swap out the non-league win for two extra points, but the unfortunate reality is that they'll have to settle for just one. The Friars closed the weekend five points back of BC and six behind conference leaders UMass Lowell, but they have two and four games in hand on those teams, respectively. With some very winnable games, including a weekend series against Lowell, in the next month. Meanwhile, BC has a weekend series with archrival Boston University this weekend, before playing UMass, UConn, then Notre Dame ahead of the Beanpot.

Both will be right near the top of the conference at season's end, and perhaps this series tells us less about either team — Providence at an ebb, BC without an elite college goaltender — than there might appear to be at first blush.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Quinnipiac (beat Union, beat Harvard)

2. North Dakota (won an exhibition against the US U18 team)

3. St. Cloud (split with Colorado College)

4. Boston College (took three points from Providence in a home-and-home)

5. Providence (took one point from BC in a home-and-home)

6. Boston University (won at Harvard, beat UMass)

7. Cornell (swept Merrimack)

8. Michigan (swept a home-and-home with Michigan State)

9. UMass Lowell (won at New Hampshire)

10. Nebraska Omaha (swept by Denver)

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Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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