Throughout the 2011-12 Boston University men’s hockey season, BU head coach Jack Parker said that he believed his team’s biggest issue on defense was mentality. The No. 16 Terriers (4-4-1, 3-3-1 Hockey East), who entered the weekend ranked eight out of 10 in the league on defense, had been trying to do too much with the puck, make too many highlight-reel plays and lacked the focus necessary to play a thorough defensive game.
On Sunday afternoon, in their biggest rival’s barn, the Terriers proved just how much mentality can improve a defense, as their 60-minute effort on defense helped shut out No. 2 Boston College, 5-0.
The difference, according to junior defenseman Sean Escobedo, was a change in defensive philosophy that the Terriers implemented for a weekend in which they faced the two top teams in Hockey East, No. 4/6 Merrimack College being the other.
“We changed our defensive system to man-on-man [from zone coverage] so everyone is held accountable,” Escobedo said. “There was a lot better communication between the defensive partners and the centers and wingers contributed to everybody just bearing down and playing solid defense.”
With the switch to man-on-man coverage, the Terriers limited the seventh-best offense in the country to just 21 shots on the afternoon. BU also shut down the league’s best power play, holding the Eagles (9-3-0, 7-2-0 Hockey East) to a 0-for-8 showing on the man-advantage. The low numbers from the Eagles had been a point of emphasis for BU in practice before the game.
“In a majority of games this year, we’ve given up at least 25, 30 shots, so we were trying to concentrate on keeping it down under 25, low 20s, even teens if you can,” said senior captain Chris Connolly. “The way you do that is you box guys out, you eliminate guys, you have to get in front of pucks, you have to help [Millan] out. Make sure he only has to stop one and there’s no rebounds lying there.
“I think that’s what the team did real well tonight, and everyone was really thorough and detailed, and it was the message this week in practice and that’s what we prepared for.”
The strong showing on defense Sunday did not come out of nowhere. The blue-line corps started to look stronger on Friday night, when the Terriers lost to Merrimack in overtime but held the Warriors to just one goal until the final two minutes of the game.
The exclamation point came Sunday, when BU shut out a team that had scored at least two goals in every other game it played this season. The Terriers allowed just one shot on three BC power plays in the first period and did not allow BC to reach double-digits in shots in any single period. BU also blocked 11 BC shots.
“I thought our team played fabulous in front of me, especially considering how many power plays they had early in the first period,” said senior goaltender Kieran Millan. “I don’t think I’ve seen a BU hockey team since I’ve been here block that many shots.”
But the Terriers were not just blocking shots. They swept up rebounds, got in shooting lanes, intercepted BC passes and pestered BC in the Terriers’ own zone all game.
In the first period, the Eagles attempted 14 shots on net. BU blocked five of those, and BC shot three wide, meaning less than half of their shots actually reached the net. That total included three first-period power plays for the Eagles.
In the second period, BC continued to struggle to put shots on net rather than shoot them wide. They sent five shots wide, including one on a three-on-none opportunity and another on a four-on-one rush.
“I think it was a mixture of we were getting in lanes, trying to take away their shot lanes, and Millan was standing on his head in net,” Escobedo said of the errant shooting by BC. “They have to try to pick corners on him and that sometimes causes them to shoot wide as well.”
BU also executed the simple rather than flashy plays that often cause defensemen to go unnoticed during hockey games. Millan did not face many rebound shots from BC because the BU defense would sweep the puck out from in front of the net quickly.
In a game in which the Terriers scored five goals, it would seem the team’s success came from being offense-oriented, but Parker said it was the opposite philosophy that worked for the Terriers on Sunday.
“We played on the defensive side of the puck all the time,” Parker said. “We weren’t trying to grab pucks. We weren’t hoping to be on the offensive side. We blocked shots and we stopped and started.
“We didn’t circle around. We got to people; we got back. We got to people; we got back. So I thought that there was focus and intensity.”
The source of that focus and intensity is easy to uncover when a team is facing its long-time rival who also happens to be the top team in the league. But the key for the Terrier defense going forward will be whether they can continue to provide the effort and thorough play they showed Sunday in a game Millan said made for an enjoyable afternoon.
“It was a pleasure to be in net and be part of that,” Millan said. “Hopefully we can play a lot more like that because it was a lot of fun.”