BC's small line produces big results
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- The New Year started anything but happy around the Boston College hockey program when the Eagles dropped their first three games after the calendar turned to 2010.
A pair of losses in the Denver Cup to St. Lawrence and the host Pioneers was followed by an even more difficult setback to city rival Boston University in the Frozen Fenway game on Jan. 8.
A nice 10-3-2 start for BC had quickly turned into a pedestrian 10-6-2 mark.
The Eagles weren't exactly reeling, but coach Jerry York needed to shake things up a bit and did so by shuffling three of his forward lines. The result was the creation of line centered by junior Brian Gibbons with junior Joe Whitney on left wing and sophomore Cam Atkinson on right wing.
"We hadn't been playing very well so we kind of knew changes were coming," Gibbons said. "We weren't really sure which direction [York] was going to go with the lines because we have such great depth. I had an idea I was going to play with Cam, and we kind of guessed that Joe would be the left wing so we were pretty excited."
A couple of practices later, BC took the ice against Providence College and the Friars quickly found out they were on the wrong end of this chemistry experiment.
The Whitney-Gibbons-Atkinson line scored in its first shift and by the end of the first period had two goals, while BC had a 22-1 shot advantage. By game's end the Eagles had a 4-1 victory and the new line registered three goals and four assists on 10 shots with a plus-9 rating.
"We clicked right away," Gibbons said. "Our excitement helped ease the transition. We're best friends off the ice so we brought that fun on to the ice and it translated to success."
Since the line was formed 22 games ago it has accounted for 36 goals, 48 assists and 84 points. And more importantly, BC is on a 17-4-1 run, starting with that win over the Friars back on Jan. 12.
As the Eagles (27-10-3) prepare to play Miami (29-7-7) in the Frozen Four's second national semifinal at Ford Field on Thursday night (8:30 ET, ESPN2 HD), the puck possession style that the RedHawks favor will be in stark contrast to BC's puck movement system.
And a key to the latter's success is personified by the diminutive but speedy Whitney-Gibbons-Atkinson line.
"They're all very creative and they all skate very well," York said. "And they play with their head up so they can make plays. You've got to be creative and I guess under 5-8 to play on that line."
Whitney is the shortest at 5-foot-6 (170 pounds), Gibbons (5-8) is the lightest at 165 pounds and Atkinson is the biggest of the bunch at 5-8, 175.
While it's unfair to compare any of this trio with past BC greats just yet, the Eagles -- and York in particular -- have had success with smaller players leading them on the national stage. Current Montreal Canadiens right wing Brian Gionta (5-7, 170) was a key member of the 2001 national championship team and current Buffalo Sabres center Nathan Gerbe (5-6, 170) was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2008 Frozen Four when he led BC to its third national title.
BC's current speed skaters are successful in part because they follow York's desire to keep the puck moving ahead of the pace of the opposition.
"He likes us to keep moving around," said Atkinson, the only drafted player on the line (Columbus, 2008 sixth round). "We don't really have any set plays other than off the faceoff draw. As long as we're moving our feet and generating some scoring chances, he gives us a lot of leeway.
"Since we're a little smaller, and I think we're a little faster as well, we like to carry the puck in and that usually generates offensive chances. We get a lot of 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s."
And a lot of red lights behind the opposing goaltender.
For the season, Atkinson (27-23-50, plus-23), Gibbons (16-30-46, plus-21) and Whitney (16-23-39, plus-10) have a combined 59 goals and 76 assists for 135 points and are a plus-54.
As lethal as the line is in the offensive zone, it's the neutral zone and transition game where the skill and natural ability become a real head-turner.
"I think the reason you see a lot of 3-on-2s and a lot of breaks is that once the puck turns over, in that split second we're all out of the gate because we want to get on offense," Whitney said.
Despite the gaudy numbers, there was a recent stretch when the line struggled for several games.
During a four-game stretch leading up to the Northeast Regional final against Yale, the Whitney-Gibbons-Atkinson line was nearly shut out. The Eagles scored 18 goals in those wins against UMass, Vermont, Maine and Alaska-Fairbanks, but the line only had a single Whitney goal in the Hockey East final against the Black Bears to show for its efforts.
The result was a meeting with York on the morning of the Yale game to talk through what the problem might be.
"I hadn't seen the same enthusiasm, the same zest to play that they had for most of the year," York said. "I kind of stressed to them that you can still affect the game with no points. I think all high-end players go through that once in a while and there were a couple of games where nothing went right for them offensively as far as red lights.
"We just stressed that you've got to enjoy playing hockey, you've got to have an enthusiasm to play and good things happen."
In BC's wild 9-7 win against Yale, the Whitney-Gibbons-Atkinson line found the fun again to the tune of six goals and four assists -- led by Atkinson's third hat trick in the past 10 games.
All of which means it's pretty hard to argue with the fourth Frozen Four appearance in the last five years when it comes to defining the current mood and success around the BC hockey program.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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