Boston University traveled to Ann Arbor last weekend for a Friday-Sunday series against Michigan in an early-season battle between a pair of teams that ranked in the top ten nationally. It was also a fairly rare situation of two programs with brand new, young head coaches taking over what were considered fairly talented rosters. It was a good measuring stick series for where each team is at early in the season.
Friday’s game was over quickly. BU clearly came out of the gate on Friday night looking to impose their will physically to try and slow down the very skilled Michigan team and that strategy backfired in spectacular fashion. Case McCarthy was whistled for interference 3:40 into the game and Michigan scored to take a 1-0 lead just as that penalty expired. Then things went from bad to worse for the Terriers. Luke Tuch and Jay O’Brien each took no-doubter major penalties for contact to the head 56 seconds apart, leaving Michigan with 4:04 of 5x3 power play time. Michigan’s power play was able to convert three times during the extended 5x3, giving Michigan a comfortable 4-0 lead and turning the final 50 minutes of regulation into a formality. Michigan would end up winning by a final score of 9-2.
Given the extra day of rest with a football game sandwiched in between the series, BU regrouped for a better effort on Sunday afternoon. They still brought the same physical edge but without the stupid, unnecessary penalties and found a lot more success.
Despite falling behind 1-0 in the first period, it felt like the first time all weekend that BU had the edge in play. They would even the score early in the second period on a nice rush up the ice that Michigan didn’t defend well against, and after a Michigan power play goal, the Terriers would respond with a pair of power play goals of their own for a 3-2 lead.
In the third period, Michigan would press, and have some decent chances, but couldn’t find a way to get the tying goal past BU goalie Vinny Duplessis, and BU escaped with a 3-2 win.
Such is college hockey that, despite the fact that they were humiliated on Friday night, BU actually comes out of weekend with the better result of the two teams. They’ve got a marquee road win against a team that should be among the best in the country all season.
But results not withstanding, I came out of watching those two games liking Michigan’s long-term prospects much better than BU’s.
Offensively, I think Michigan might be even better than they were last season, despite losing the likes of Beniers, Johnson, Bordeleau, Brisson, etc. to the pros. Individually they maybe aren’t as good, but the puck support, vision, and passing feels much better, as does their ability to pursue pucks and capitalize on second chance opportunities. This is a big league goal that they scored on Sunday. You can pick any handful out of the nine they scored on Friday as well and there are some really nice plays in there.
The downside, as it has been in the past for Michigan, is on defense. They start with Luke Hughes, who is likely the best player in the country right now—although that’s still much more for his offensive prowess than his defensive zone play—but things drop off pretty quickly after that. Freshman Seamus Casey is promising, and Jacob Truscott has developed nicely into a reliable player—though again, I think both are much more developed offensively than defensively at this point—and everybody else is just kind of there.
There have been some bad turnovers and missed assignments that have led to goals. It’s almost comical how wide open Matt Brown was in front of the net on BU’s game-winning goal on Sunday.
Of course the most effective defensive system is possessing the puck in the other teams end of the ice, and Michigan is going to do that a lot. They may give up a few goals, but they’re going to score a lot more. That makes them vulnerable to the occasional night like Sunday where the puck just doesn’t want to go in for them, but I don’t see many teams being able to skate with them and make them defend for long periods of time. They’re going to be a very good hockey team.
It’s a little less clear if the Terriers are truly back—is BU college hockey’s version of University of Texas football?— under new head coach Jay Pandolfo. Not that there is anything particularly troubling in their results so far. I think the back-to-back major penalties that led to Friday’s embarrassing defeat are more likely to be a one-off anything, so I wouldn’t read much into that.
We’ll likely learn a lot about the Terriers fairly soon though. They go through a meat grinder between now and Thanksgiving, starting with the Michigan series, then facing top-half Hockey East teams in UConn, Lowell, UMass, and Northeastern, with a single game versus Notre Dame to close it out. If they come out of that stretch at or above .500, they could be a serious contender for the NCAA Tournament in the second half of the season.