Commentary

BC will play it safe Thursday

Against Miami in Frozen Four, Eagles can't afford to make mistakes

Updated: April 8, 2010, 7:46 AM ET
By Brion O'Connor | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- If nothing else, Boston College has proved to be a remarkably versatile and resilient hockey team during its current run through the postseason. The Eagles put the clamps on the offensively gifted UMass Minutemen, 5-2, in the second game of their Hockey East quarterfinals, shut out a determined Vermont squad, 3-0, in the Hockey East semifinals, and surrendered a single tally to Alaska in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, winning 3-1.

But bookending those games were a couple of old-time shoot-'em-up affairs: a 6-5 win over the Minutemen in the opening quarterfinal game at BC, and a 9-7 barn-burner against Yale in the NCAA Northeast Regional final. Toss in a 7-6 overtime win against Maine in the Hockey East final, and BC followers have to wonder which team is going to show up for the Frozen Four semifinal against the No. 1-ranked Miami University RedHawks (29-7-7) on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET start).

Eagles coach Jerry York has insisted he's interested only in the common denominator, which is that BC won all six games. In the playoffs, every team has talented shooters, York said, and goals are going to get scored. As long as the No. 3 Eagles (27-10-3) can notch another victory, York said he doesn't mind how it looks. Still, the last thing the Eagles want is to get into a track meet with their opponents Thursday.

"We don't want to be playing a shootout kind of game [with Miami]", said BC assistant coach Greg Brown before the team traveled to Detroit on Tuesday. "Some of the choices we made against Yale were too ambitious. We don't want to go into a prevent defense. We want to stay aggressive. But at the same time we want to make smart choices."

Here's why: If the Eagles make mistakes, the RedHawks have a slew of veteran snipers who can capitalize. They have seven forwards who registered 20 or more points, led by senior Jarod Palmer (18-27-45) and juniors Andy Miele (15-29-44), captain Tommy Wingels (17-25-42) and Carter Camper (15-27-42). Add several big-time defensemen with offensive pop -- notably Chris Wideman (5-17-22), Cameron Shilling (4-15-19) and Joe Hartman (6-8-14) -- and Miami, averaging 3.4 goals a game this season, looks like a team more than capable of running up the score.

[+] EnlargeJohn Muse
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIBC junior goaltender John Muse has been called the backbone of the Eagles squad.

Further, given coach Enrico Blasi's penchant for juggling his lines, Miami is a very difficult team to scout, and to match up against. Which explains why BC is more concerned about its own game.

"There's no question they're an extremely talented team," said Eagles captain Matt Price. "We don't expect to go into Miami and play a 9-7 game."

Against Yale in the regional finals, Price said that the Eagles "started running around a little bit" after streaking to a 9-4 lead, and got careless. The Bulldogs took advantage, roaring back with three unanswered goals to cut the BC lead to 9-7 before the clock ran out.

"We got away from some of the fundamentals, some of the core values that made this team successful," said Price. "Taking care of the puck at both blue lines is significant. At this level, if you give a player a half-step, he'll do something with it. We have to negate that."

Likewise, BC associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh said recent practice sessions were used to fine-tune, and not reinvent, the team. "We're going to play the way we always play," he said Monday. "Whether it's the first game of the year or the semifinals of the national tournament, you have to do what you do well. You can't change your style. We're not going to be a neutral-zone trap team. We're going to play a pretty aggressive style."

Comparing recent high-scoring wins, Cavanaugh said he was more concerned with the lack of discipline that the Eagles showed in the Maine game. "We want to be smarter playing with the lead," he said. "Maine was more disconcerting than Yale, because we allowed them to get back in it."

Four times in the Maine game, the Black Bears struck for a goal less than three minutes after a BC tally, twice within a minute. "We couldn't hold the lead, and that's something we emphasized all year long," said Cavanaugh. "We just didn't execute. That happens."

If the Eagles do get in a hole early on Thursday, digging out could prove a Herculean task. Miami has a young but talented defensive group (all freshmen and sophomores), plus a pair of sophomore goaltenders -- Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp -- who are boasting All-American numbers. Each has a goals-against average under 1.90, and a save percentage above .920. As a team, Miami has a 1.84 goals-against average. And although BC's forwards have shown this postseason that they're a deep group, with a number of role players stepping up to contribute, expect Miami to key on BC's resurgent second line of Cam Atkinson (27-23-50), Brian Gibbons (16-30-46) and Joe Whitney (16-23-39), which exploded out of a mild postseason slump to score six times against Yale.

"I think we have so much depth, it's not going to be one line scoring," said Atkinson. "We have to have everyone contributing. We just have to realize that the offense will come, but defense comes first."

Senior Carl Sneep, the lone upperclassman on BC's blue line, said the Eagles' defensive corps, while young, is game-ready, thanks to a number of high-profile games this season, including the Frozen Fenway match and Beanpot final (both against Boston University), and the Hockey East and Northeast Regional sweeps.

"I'm just telling them to focus on their game," said Sneep. "It's knowing how to deal with pressure situations, and not let it break your focus. We just have to play our game."

Meanwhile, junior goaltender John Muse, already with one national championship on his résumé, brings a quiet confidence that Sneep and Price said makes him the backbone of their squad. The Eagles will need him at his best.

Both coaches downplayed any potential motivation that Miami might have facing a Boston team in the NCAAs for the fourth straight season. Blasi's RedHawks dropped the previous three contests, the past two by 4-3 overtime scores, first to BC in the 2008 quarterfinals, and then in heartbreaking fashion to BU in last season's championship game.

"They're a different team and we're a different team," said Blasi, referring to the 2007 and 2008 NCAA games between Miami and BC. "As far as a rematch, that's great for media and Hollywood stories. We're focused on what BC is today. I can tell you they're really quick and fast and offensively explosive. We'll have to be at our best to give them a good game.

"This is the Frozen Four," Blasi said. "Both teams have experience in it. So I think you can throw the experience out the window, and it will come down to the two teams playing on the ice."

York had similar sentiments. "I think all the teams that make it to the Frozen Four have great motivation," he said. "The prize we seek lives with you for the rest of your life."

Brion O'Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer. He can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.

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