“Confident and excited” were the words that head coach David Quinn used to describe his No. 2 Boston University men’s hockey team Wednesday afternoon.
It should come as no surprise, as the road to the Frozen Four — and a potential sixth national championship — has officially been charted for the Terriers (25-7-5).
The first step in that journey? A showdown with No. 17 Yale University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday afternoon in Manchester, New Hampshire.
BU enters the national tournament for the 33rd time in program history and the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Friday’s tilt against the Bulldogs (18-9-5) will stand as the first showdown between both clubs since Nov. 25, 2006, when the Terriers edged Yale in overtime, 2-1.
The Terriers have had some luck during their time up north at the Verizon Wireless Arena. BU opened up the 2009 NCAA Tournament as the top seed up in Manchester, and eventually winning the national title that same year. With that in mind, the Terriers will be hoping for that same luck going into Friday’s game.
“This tournament means a lot to us, BU hockey and all the alumni and everyone, so I think, especially us, my class has never been to the tournament, so it’s a big deal,” said junior goaltender Matt O’Connor. “This week has been a great, quick turnaround, moving on from regional play to the big stage, the big dance, so I think we’re ready to go.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament on a roll, the Terriers have won their last five games, outscoring opponents by an impressive 26-7 margin. Last Saturday, BU bested the No. 14 University of Massachusetts Lowell, 5-3, in the Hockey East championship at TD Garden, securing the program’s eighth league title and top seed in the NCAA Northeast Regional.
Leading the way for the Terriers against the River Hawks (21-12-6) was freshman center Jack Eichel, who notched two goals and an assist in the win. The MVP of the Hockey East Tournament, Eichel has been on fire as of late, recording 26 points during a 12-game game point-streak.
While BU might have the frontrunner for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in its ranks, Eichel and the rest of the Terriers will have their hands full against a formidable Bulldog team.
Head coach Keith Allain boasts an experienced squad with national tourney experience, as Yale captured its first NCAA title after defeating Quinnipiac University in the 2013 national championship game.
The bread and butter of Yale’s gameplan revolves around its stingy defense and goaltender Alex Lyon.
The sophomore netminder has staked his claim as one of the top goalies in the nation this season, pacing the NCAA in both goals-against average (1.58), save percentage (.939) and shutouts (seven).
In front of Lyon lies an imposing blueliner corps led by captain Tommy Fallen and Bruins prospect Rob O’Gara, who have helped the Bulldogs compile the best team defense in Division I hockey at 1.59 goals allowed per game.
Yale rolls out a balanced — if not unspectacular — offense, with 10 skaters registering double-digit totals in points this season, although the club’s leading scorers, O’Gara and forward Frankie DiChiara have only compiled 21 points on the year.
For comparison, BU leads the country in scoring (3.89 goals per game) and possesses six skaters that have notched over 21 points on the season, led by Eichel, who has more than tripled DiChiara and O’Gara’s scoring output (66 points).
“It’s certainly a sharp contrast in styles, and something’s got to give, and hopefully it’s their defense, because they’re real difficult to create scoring chances on,” Quinn said. “They don’t give much on the initial rush … We’re really going to have to be patient, similar to what we did against Merrimack [College]. Roll the sleeves up, get inside the dots, pay a price at the net front, be the aggressor.”
While it seems as if all the focus on Friday’s game revolves around the nation’s top offense and defense squaring off against each other, junior forward Danny O’Regan was quick to point out that the Terriers are no slouch on defense and in net, either.
“That’s what the matchup is on paper, our offense versus their defense,” O’Regan said. “But I think people kind of overlook how good our defense is and has been playing, especially when we commit to a team defense, and not to mention our goalie, who I think is the best in the country, or has been playing like it as of late.”
O’Connor has been an integral cog in BU’s success so far this season, posting a 22-3-4 record while tying for 14th in the NCAA in save percentage (.928). The Toronto native was especially huge during the Hockey East Tournament, stopping 54 of 58 shots during the conference semifinal and final en route to being named to the All-Tournament team.
On defense, the Terriers have excelled at negating opposing teams’ scoring, despite having a defenseman grouping made up of four freshmen. Currently, the Terriers rank 13th in the nation in team defense, relinquishing 2.27 goals per game.
The winner of Friday’s matchup will have little time to rest, facing off against the winner of the No. 8 University of Minnesota and No. 7 University of Minnesota Duluth game on Saturday evening with a Frozen Four appearance on the line, but Quinn reiterated that the team is not yet looking ahead to any future matchups.
With every game now shifting into a win-or-go-home scenario, Quinn said the Terriers cannot lose focus on the task at hand — defeating a tenacious Yale team.
“It certainly adds a level of excitement, not that the national tournament isn’t exciting enough,” Quinn said of the one-game nature of the tournament. “But it certainly bodes well for maybe the lesser schools, but there’s no lesser schools in the hockey world. I’ve said this a lot: the [seeding] number next to the team doesn’t mean much.
“If you’re the 14th seeded team in this tournament, you’re still a damn good hockey team and you can beat any other top-three or four team, and it wouldn’t be a fluke. That’s the case going up against Yale. They’re a really good hockey team, and we’ve got our hands full.”