Columnists, Ice Hockey, Sports

COUGHLAN: A photo finish in a bitter rivalry

It is impossible to argue that the Boston University men’s ice hockey team edges its counterpart from Boston College in every position.

Heck, it’s even hard to argue that the Terriers (8-5-1, 6-4-1 Hockey East) are better than their arch-rivals in a majority of roles played on the ice.

On offense?

The Eagles (12-5-0, 9-3-0 HE) hold a decisive .35 advantage in goals per game and a slight 1.3 percent edge in power play conversion rate. Following the long-awaited departure of last year’s Hockey East points leader in Cam Atkinson paired with the graduation of the conference’s fourth-leading scorer, Brian Gibbons, it seemed as if the Terriers were poised to earn back the edge against the Eagles on the offensive end of the ice this season.

However, nearing the winter break in the college hockey schedule, it seems all the more apparent that until junior forward Chris Kreider—whose 22 points are good for second in Hockey East—leaves Chestnut Hill for the New York Rangers, the Terriers will have to wait their turn to have the best offense on Commonwealth Avenue.

Even if Kreider decides to hit the NHL early next season, the Terriers’ golden boy, sophomore forward Matt Nieto (16 points to lead the Terriers), will still have to fend off rising sophomore forward Bill Arnold, whose 19 points tie him for fourth in Hockey East so far this season.

On defense?

Not much of an argument here. BC’s penalty kill is tops in the conference at 88.5 percent, 3.8 percent more effective than that of the Terriers who lie in fourth place, and their goals against average of 2.47 nudges BU’s mark of 3.07 by a healthy margin.

Coaching?

The Terriers win this one by default against most any other team in the country just because of the legacy that Jack Parker has built at BU, but Boston College has the only active NCAA head coach who can stand up to Parker in most every significant statistical category in Jerry York.

While both men have led their current schools to three national titles, York also hoisted the hardware in 1984 with Bowling Green State University. While some would argue that Parker’s four-plus decade long partnership with his alma mater and his dominance of the Beanpot championship decades before York even arrived to coach at BC in 1995 earn him the title of best coach on Comm Ave, others point to the fact that York narrowly edges Parker in overall wins, 880 to 853, and national titles, four to three, in defending the Eagles’ bench boss’ resume.

In the end, the argument ought to extend beyond simple numbers and into the realm of management style and program chemistry, but for the sake of space and in recognition of the fact that such a comparison deserves its own column entirely, we’ll call it a wash. Now we arrive at the big difference-maker, the one position that can take any and all analysis of other players and positions and turn it on its head: goaltending.

It is safe to say that, although Eagle goalie Parker Milner had proved a capable backup for stellar net-minder John Muse, BU senior goalie Kieran Millan earned BU a sizable advantage between the pipes heading into the 2011-12 season. With Muse finally shipped out Newton and Millan back for a fourth go-around, it is safe to say that Terrier fans were itching for the opportunity to brand Milner’s ears with ‘sieve’ chants and enjoy their first goaltending advantage since Muse’s sophomore slump in 2008-09.

Indeed, if the Terriers were going to be able to turn around their recent 0-5 winless streak against their arch-rivals, this was the category that would allow them to do so.

And it worked. BU caught BC sleeping in the middle of November and lit Milner up like a Christmas tree again last weekend, scoring 10 goals on 35 shots through their first two games against the Eagles this season. Coupled with Milner’s statue-esque performances were two gems from Millan, who posted BU’s first shutout against BC since 1983 in the first game and stole the W in the second, stopping 42 shots in the contest.

So what if Millan skipped some classes and got benched as a result? So what if he has been noticeably sharper against stronger teams than weaker ones? The fact that the Eagles were starting Parker Milner meant that on any given night, Millan could turn on the jets and nab the W. Useful tool when it comes time for the Beanpot and Hockey East Tournament, no?

Enter, at the Zamboni doors: Eagle freshman goalie Brian Billett.

As the Terriers are now well aware following a sobering 6-1 defeat at the hands of BC on Saturday night, the Eagles are not without reserves.

Instead of tossing Milner to the dogs for a third straight BU-BC contest, York played the rookie, and with great results.

Billett stopped 40 shots in the second start of his NCAA career on the biggest stage in college hockey. The six-foot-one, 190 pound greenhorn refused to buckle under incessant pressure from the Terrier offense in the second period, and finished the game having bolstered his save percentage to .959 and his goals allowed average to 1.5.

Not surprisingly, Billett started BC’s only game since the weekend against Providence College on Tuesday, turning in another impressive effort for a 4-1 win.

Although Billett has only begun to start games for the Eagles, he has done so against then-No. 8 Yale University, the Terriers at No. 13 in the nation, and the No. 20 Friars, who had just swept two games from the only remaining undefeated team in the nation in Merrimack College.

His numbers through three starts? A 3-0 record, a 1.33 GAA, and a .956 save percentage.

Ouch.

Billett may not have appeared to be the ideal candidate to fill Muse’s skates, since he was passed over in the 2010 NHL entry draft prior to the season, but three starts in, it seems that he can handle himself.

Having played prior to 2011 with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, Billett was named the EJHL Goalie of the Year in 2009-10, and he went 6-0 in the post season in 2010-11, earning an overall record of 19-2-1, a 1.93 GAA and a .933 save percentage.

Three games certainly do not make a season, much less a career, but there is no denying that the kid knows how to win. The fact that he does not have a cushy NHL job on which to fall back if he performs poorly in his time at BC makes for a motivated hockey player.

In a rivalry where keeping pace from position to position is paramount, the limelight is now squarely back on the Terriers. Unless Billett suddenly forgets how to lace up his skates, it seems that BU no longer has the overwhelming advantage at goaltender this season should the teams face off again in the future With Millan off to Colorado this off-season, Billett could turn into more of a headache than originally expected.

Fans better hope that Terrier goalie recruits Matt O’Connor and Sean Maguire are as good as they sound.

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