NCAA Hockey 101: Despite appearances, Boston College is struggling

Ryan Lambert Puck Daddy

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BOSTON, MA – FEBRUARY 06: Boston College Eagles defenseman Casey Fitzgerald (5) skates with the puck to start a play during the first period of the Beanpot Tournament semifinals game between the Boston University Terriers and the Boston College Eagles on February 6th, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, MA. (Photo by John Kavouris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not necessarily easy to find things to complain about when you’re looking at a team that’s 18-10-2 and came out of the first night of the Beanpot tied for eighth in the Pairwise.

And yet it’s very safe to say that the Boston College Eagles, who currently lead Hockey East, have hardly been inspiring so far this season. They’re a strong possession team, they have a very good young goaltender, and to be frank little was expected of them coming into the season, so shaken by early departures as they were over the summer.

So to be 18-10-2 with just three league losses through the first week of February is pretty good. But anyone who thinks this team is a legitimate contender needs to carefully consider the Eagles’ road to this point in the season.

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Strength of schedule is a topic that comes up a lot in college hockey for good reason, and usually it’s used to discredit historically anonymous-at-best teams with good records who might not actually be that good. Few would impugn the Venerated Boston College Eagles for packing on a light schedule, but they probably should. More than that, they had the benefit of playing a lot of teams that have recently come on a little bit back when they were playing poorer hockey than most expected.

The wins over Denver and Wisconsin and Providence now look pretty good, don’t they? The Pios, Badgers, and Friars rank second, 15th, and 10th in the Pairwise right now. But the Eagles played them all (with mixed results) back when none of them were playing well, and specifically when they weren’t getting good goaltending.

You look at the out-of-conference games in general and you see a weird mixed-bag of clubs. Some are very good, some are very, very bad. Air Force, Denver, Wisconsin twice, Colorado College, Holy Cross, Arizona State, Harvard, Minnesota, North Dakota, Quinnipiac, Ferris, and BU, with one more coming up against Northeastern next Monday. Against those teams, the Eagles went 5-7-1. In the conference, meanwhile, that makes them 13-3-1.

And that’s where the Eagles’ schedule gets interesting. Yes they already played and beat Providence twice (one of them when Providence couldn’t get a save, the other at Fenway Park), and they split with Notre Dame. They also got swept by BU. They have yet to play Lowell, and they’ve yet to play Vermont, the other team in Hockey East’s top six. So that leaves the Eagles having picked up its Ws mostly against the absolute dregs of the conference. Which is fine, because even though you should beat those teams, that doesn’t necessarily mean you always will.

But the way BC has played against those lower-end teams (as defined by those not currently in the PWR’s top-25) defies description. The way they’ve played against the higher-end ones leaves them wanting.

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This should be very alarming to the Eagles. Yeah they’ve absolutely destroyed bad teams — I mean, a .933 win percentage? They are 13-0-2 in these games — but the good ones seem to have their number, and again, the very small number of wins they’ve gotten against those higher-quality teams all come with a bit of an asterisk. They’re nonetheless 3-7-0 against teams currently in the top-25, and problematically have four of their remaining five conference games against teams also in the top-25.

The good news is that they’re very likely to grab a bye out of the first round of the Hockey East playoffs (being 13-3-1 with five games left will do that for you) but it also helps ensures that their first playoff opponent is a top-25 team or very close to it. Unenviable, to be honest, at least if we’re basing that expectation on past performance.

And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence we can turn to as a means of explaining this phenomenon. Matthew Gaudreau leads the team in points this season with 27, nearly doubling the career total he accumulated in his first three seasons at the Heights. Colin White has missed a sixth of the season for various reasons. Ryan Fitzgerald is in the same boat. Goaltender Joe Woll has slowed down pretty sharply since the first month of the season or so (he’s .913 in his last 14 games).

The Eagles therefore have the talent to run up the score on weak opponents like they always but are clearly getting handled pretty convincingly by actual, competitive teams of varying quality. And hey, you get the Ws where you can, but at this point in the season the time for reflection and fixing your problems is pretty much over, right? Teams are who they appear to be at this point. BC appears to be a mediocre-or-slightly-better team that got the bounces to go their way against bad teams, to a hilarious extent.

Moreover, there’s basically no way the Eagles are going to end up missing out on an NCAA tournament spot, unless they completely collapse and some surprising results crop up in other conferences that wedge a few otherwise unqualified teams into autobids. Basically they only need two more wins to all but assure themselves at least an NCAA tournament appearance.

Given the circumstances the Eagles faced coming into the season — and regardless of the institutional expectation of a tournament appearance at the bare minimum — that has to be seen as a positive result for a young team that really doesn’t have the kind of high-level skill we’ve collectively come to expect from this club.

So the point is, there probably aren’t a whole lot more wins likely to come to the Eagles in this season, just based on what we know. They’ve been only marginally unlucky, and because this is a team that takes too many penalties — BU wrung from them a whopping six power plays on Monday night — and also trails a lot, you can say that score effects have to enter into their PDO (insofar as they’re more likely to take a larger volume of lower-quality shots).

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Does this mean they’re incapable of beating good teams? Of course not. But they should be treated with skepticism until they can prove capable of doing it on even a semi-consistent basis. In college hockey, the media is obsessed with wins alone, but Boston College provides a pretty good example of why looking under the hood is important. They’ve got more wins than all but a handful of teams in the entire country, but they would struggle to even be competitive against those teams.

Pretty instructive, and something to watch for the rest of the season.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Minnesota-Duluth (took three points from Omaha)
2. Denver (idle)
3. Boston University (beat UMass and BC)
4. Providence (swept Maine)
5. UMass Lowell (won at Northeastern and beat UNH)
6. Minnesota (swept Penn State)
7. North Dakota (split with St. Cloud)
8. Union (lost to Cornell, beat Colgate)
9. Harvard (beat Dartmouth and Northeastern)
10. Penn State (got swept at Minnesota)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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