Ice Hockey, Sports

Top line continues dominance

There was no certainty in Boston University men’s hockey coach Jack Parker’s response when asked Thursday if senior wing Chris Higgins would see action this weekend. After absorbing what Parker had termed a ‘vicious’ hit from behind against Merrimack College on Jan. 16, Higgins had a minor concussion and six stitches across his forehead.

A week of recovery and light skating put Higgins back on the ice this weekend for two crucial games against the No. 11/12 University of New Hampshire. If there were any lingering effects from the injury, they sure didn’t show, as Higgins’ four-point weekend turned into four points in the standings for the Terriers.

It took just 38 seconds for Higgins to make his mark Friday on a shot that glanced off UNH goalie Brian Foster’s pad and left a wide rebound for sophomore Colin Wilson to finish. That was just the beginning of a dominant effort by the Terriers’ first line of Higgins, Wilson and senior Jason Lawrence.

With seven minutes to go in the first and BU holding a 2-0 lead, Higgins raced up the left wing with the puck as Lawrence drove toward the net from the right side. Higgins pulled up slightly once he reached the top of the circle, as if ready to center the puck, but dropped his shoulder and blew past an off-balance UNH defender. That deft move made it easy for him to curl inside and slide a pass through traffic for Lawrence to deposit into the net.

In the closing minutes of the second stanza, it was No. 10 once again, as Higgins carried the puck from his own blue line up the right side, swung around a defender and set up Wilson for his second goal of the night, effectively icing the game. The speed of Higgins and strength of Wilson, who managed to keep his stick low with UNH sophomore Phil DeSimone draped all over him, were too much for the Wildcats to contain Friday night.

‘I thought Colin Wilson had a great night. He was the best player on the ice, both offensively and defensively. I don’t think we’ll have him after this semester, so we might wear him out,’ Parker said, referencing Wilson’s future with the Nashville Predators.

The development of BU’s top line has been overshadowed by the emergence of freshman netminder Kieran Millan at times this season, but it is becoming evident that few opponents can match up with the trio. It has all the essentials of a dominant scoring line: a speedy winger with an eye for the open man, an emerging sniper unafraid to grind down low and an ultra-talented pivot with the best combination of power and dexterity in the league.

‘Everything’s clicking right now,’ Lawrence said. ‘We’ve been together since the first day of practice, and we really got to know each other as players. We’re good friends off the ice, too, so that helps. We know where each other are going to be, and we’re moving the puck well.’

UNH coach Dick Umile put his second line of Greg Collins, Peter LeBlanc and Bobby Butler on the ice Friday to match BU’s big guns. By game’s end, Wilson, Higgins and Lawrence each had three points while Collins and Butler combined to take six minor penalties. The aggravation of defending the Terriers’ best line showed at the end of the third, when Collins and Wilson got into a bit of a wrestling match along the boards, earning them each 10-minute misconducts.

The chemistry between the three skaters is apparent on game nights. Given time to set up in the offensive zone, they cycle the puck with ease, always aware of each other’s presence. Wilson and Higgins regularly utilize no-look backhanders and drop passes, moves that develop only with extensive playing time together. Wilson (9 goals, 21 assists), Higgins (11 g, 14 a) and Lawrence (11 g, 8 a) are on pace for career highs across the board.

‘Obviously, Higgins and Lawrence are playing the best hockey they’ve played here. I’m sure they thought they’d died and gone to heaven playing with Willy the way Wilson’s playing. The entire line has played great all year long,’ Parker said.

Though kept quiet for most of Saturday night’s contest in Durham, N.H., Parker put his top line on the ice with a 2-1 advantage and an empty Wildcat net in the closing seconds. Senior Matt Gilroy stripped the puck and sent it on to Lawrence at center ice. For a moment, it looked as if a defenseman might have the play covered, but in stepped Higgins at the blue line to take a feed and score to end the drama.

It was just the type of play that has become natural for the best line in Hockey East.

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