Monday, July 28, 2014
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Men’s hockey can find no answer to impressive defense

LOWELL — There was a truck coming to Commonwealth Avenue this weekend, and the Boston University men’s hockey team knew it. It just couldn’t do anything to get out of the way.

That truck was in the form of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the 12th-ranked team in the country, which used a stifling trap defense to sweep the regular-season series with the No. 13/15 Terriers by taking both ends of a home-and-home, first 3-0 at Agganis Arena Friday night and then 3-1 Saturday at the Tsongas Center.

BU coach Jack Parker, pleased with his team’s effort in both games, credited much of the Terriers’ (14-14-2, 11-9-2 Hockey East) inability to find the net to the River Hawk (18-9-2, 12-8-2 Hockey East) defense — a defense from which the Terriers knew exactly what to expect.

“[The River Hawks] play a completely different d-zone coverage than anybody else in college hockey,” Parker said Thursday before mentioning it is similar to the system BU used when he suited up as a Terrier in the 1960s. “It’s not new by any stretch of the imagination.

“They do just the opposite of what everybody else does. They have one guy out high covering both points, they have two wings down low, so they’re always doubling and tripling you. They double you up every time the puck goes to the corner … So their d-zone coverage is based on outnumbering you in the corners.

“And they’re real good at it.”

If the Terriers did not believe that before, they certainly believe it after Saturday’s game.

BU took nearly as many penalties (14) as it did shots on net (16). Only two players — senior captain Wade Megan (four shots on net) and junior forward Matt Nieto (three) — tested Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck more than twice.

Sophomore forward Evan Rodrigues’ only shot of the night came in the third period when he wrapped the puck around the left post after a rare River Hawk miscue.

The goal ended a stretch of 117:33 in which the Terriers could not find the back of the net against one of Hockey East’s hottest teams, a stretch that dated back to the teams’ Jan. 19 contest at Agganis, a 4-3 UML win.

Outside of tipping their collective hat to the River Hawk defense, the Terriers did not have much in the way of answers. The effort was there, they insisted, but there just weren’t any results.

Parker said the team did not get any “puck luck,” and Rodrigues echoed that sentiment, pinning the loss in part on UML “getting bounces, [from] the puck and from the refs.”

“It’s a little frustrating because we didn’t play bad,” Rodrigues said. “We had a good weekend. We’re working hard, we’re getting in corners and they’re a very defensive team and we just couldn’t crack them this weekend.”

BU’s struggle could be particularly worrisome for a couple reasons.

First, should the teams meet again in the Hockey East quarterfinals — a very real possibility, depending on how the chips fall in the conference standings — the Terriers could be in for a short postseason if they still have no answers for the familiar riddle.

It is also the second time during BU’s 4-10-2 post-Christmas slump that it had a hard time with a distinct defense.

Jan. 18 at Agganis and Feb. 4 in the first round of the Beanpot, Northeastern University’s strong forecheck also gave the Terriers fits trying to break out of their defensive zone.

Just like against the River Hawks, both dates with the Huskies ended in losses, meaning BU has had problems with defenses that are aggressive and pressure it to make quick decisions, and defenses that sit back and play a trap.

Put together, it results in BU looking for answers as the end of the regular season draws near and as the team continues to drop in the conference standings and all-important PairWise Rankings.

BU has five big Hockey East games and 10 big Hockey East points still on the table, most importantly Tuesday vs. Merrimack College at Agganis.

“We’re still pretty confident,” Rodrigues said. “We gave it our all this weekend. We put in the effort … We just got to get back to practice and get ready for Merrimack on Tuesday. It’s a big game for us.”

They’ll keep on driving, but they might be out of gas.

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