Ice Hockey, Sports

Young defensive corps regroups after first-period struggles

Freshman defenseman John MacLeod finished the Hockey East semifinal game with a plus-4 rating.  PHOTO BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Freshman defenseman John MacLeod finished the Hockey East semifinal game with a plus-4 rating.

It was a failed centering pass, and all the No. 3 Boston University of men’s hockey team needed to do was chip the puck out of its own zone.

Freshman defenseman Brandon Hickey initially broke up the chip pass made by University of New Hampshire forward Andrew Potularski. Hickey was in good position to outlet the puck out to his forwards.

But that didn’t happen.

Hickey skated to his left, bumped into his defensive partner in freshman Brandon Fortunato, slipped and coughed up the puck. Winger Tyler Kelleher picked up the loose puck and slipped it through junior goaltender Matt O’Connor’s five-hole for the Hockey East semifinal game’s first goal at 14:34 of the first period.

It was the first time the Wildcats (19-19-2) scored, but it wasn’t the first time the BU (24-7-5) defense had its issues during the first 20 minutes. Sloppy in-zone play and turnovers marred the much of the first period. Without a strong backstop, it could’ve been much worse.

“I don’t know whether that’s nerves or what,” said BU head coach David Quinn. “If it wasn’t for OC, that game could’ve gotten out of control in a hurry.”

The game was far from out of reach, though, as the teams headed to their dressing rooms tied a 1-1 after the first period. Anyway you put it, the defense composed of four freshman and five underclassmen played uncharacteristically poor.

But starting in the second period, aside from a few mistakes, the blue liners were composed and looked sharper. O’Connor made a few big saves, but the corps in front of him made some timely plays.

In the middle frame, the Terriers limited the Wildcats to 18 shot attempts, nine of which hit the net. More importantly, BU killed off two penalties where it allowed only two combined shots on goal. The defensive-zone coverage was better and there were far fewer giveaways than in the previous period.

According to Quinn, UNH’s best opportunity to score wasn’t even because of some great look the Wildcats had.

“I looked at the shot chart in the second period, and I think they best scoring chance they had was our shot on our own goalie,” Quinn said. “After the first period they had 12 glaring chances, 12 shots in between the hash marks, where in the second period they had none.”

So what exactly led to this turnaround? Quinn said it was all about staying calm and focused.

“I thought they settled down,” Quinn said of the defensemen. “That’s not easy to do when you struggle in the first period and you can settle yourself down and have a good second period, that’s sign of mental toughness.”

In particular, freshman defenseman John MacLeod played a key role in keeping UNH from scoring again. Not only did he have two blocked shots and a plus-4 rating, but he also made one strong play that kept BU in the lead.

With the Terriers ahead 2-1 early in the third period, the Wildcats got a chance to tie things off a BU blocked point shot. Instead of UNH getting a clean breakaway, MacLeod skated hard on the backcheck and made sure there was no shot to be had on net. The play proved huge, especially when BU added a third goal minutes later and all but iced the win.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember just how young this BU defense is. With the third-best unit in Hockey East in terms of goals allowed per game, the group has been exceptional considering its age.

Still though, young players at this level are prone to mistakes, and that’s what Quinn reiterated after the game. He was just happy they got things together in time to pull off a win.

“When you have four 18-year-old defensemen, you put them in this environment and what’s at stake, it’s human nature,” Quinn said. “If you had only one or two, you can rely on the veteran D corps maybe to settle them down, but they look to their left, they look to their right on the bench, there’s a guy that’s in a similar situation — he’s an 18-year-old freshman, he’s sure the hell isn’t going to calm you down. He’s as nervous as you are. But, like I said, all of them did a much better job as the game progressed.

“I’m just real proud of them.”

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