Finding added story lines usually isn't a problem as the first Monday in February approaches each year, and this year is no different, including just the second semifinals postponement in tournament history. The 2015 Beanpot semifinals will be played on the first Tuesday of February due to the impending snow storm projected to hit the Boston region Sunday night into Monday.
When the 63rd annual Beanpot Tournament commences at the TD Garden in Boston, two of the top three prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft will take center stage as their respective teams hope to advance to next Monday's final. Yes, we're talking about Boston University's Jack Eichel and Boston College's Noah Hanifin.
The spotlight will be on them, but there are plenty of other reasons to be excited for the 2015 edition of the Beanpot Tournament. Harvard is limping into the event with some key injuries, but excluding Northeastern's tough start, all four teams look to have a good shot to win this year.
Boston University takes on Harvard at 5 p.m. followed by Northeastern and Boston College at approximately 8 p.m. Each game will be broadcast live on New England Sports Network (NESN).
Here's a scouting report and a breakdown of how each team is faring heading into the tournament:
Boston University (16-4-4 overall, 11-2-2 Hockey East)
The Terriers enter the Beanpot with fewer than five losses for the first time in 17 seasons. David Quinn's team has the tournament's most dynamic weapon and will enter as the favorite with a No. 3 national ranking. Can BU win its first Beanpot title since 2009?
BU's puck possession numbers have increased tremendously this season, especially with Eichel on the ice. However, there's more to the scarlet and white's ability to maintain possession than just Eichel. Four freshmen defensemen were brought in -- all of whom can skate, have good vision and move the puck up ice. Insert a healthy Matt Grzelcyk back into the top defensive pairing and a much improved Doyle Somerby and you have a defensive unit that can coral the puck and keep it away from opponents.
Talk of Eichel's clutch performances have been well chronicled here and other publications, but the whole team has been a third period team all year. BU has a total scoring margin of +36, but is -3 in the first period. Contrast that to +33 in the third period. Never count out the Terriers and they have the offensive skill pieces to mount a comeback.
Sooner rather than later BU's slow starts are bound to catch up to them and who knows if tonight is the night. Harvard has also been a team that has gotten better as the game gets along. If there is one weakness on the ice besides not playing a full 60 minutes it is that BU will trot out one junior, one sophomore and four freshmen on the blue line when it takes the TD Garden ice tonight. Sure, all are very talented and BU isn't the only young team on the blue line tonight, but whenever you have a supremely talented group, they are bound to take some chances. The Terriers need to keep it simple against a Harvard team that can be opportunistic.
Is there any doubt Eichel is the key player for the Terriers and for the entire tournament? As it has been all season, all eyes will be on No. 9 in scarlet and white tonight. The North Chelmsford, Mass. native is an elite talent that all analysts have going in the top two of the 2015 NHL Draft.
For Beanpot fans seeing Eichel for the first time, you'll notice a tremendous reach. NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olcyzk compared his length and reach to Mario Lemieux back in September. Eichel isn't one of those players who looks like he's motoring around at 100 mph, but he's fast. He's got a powerful stride and can turn on the afterburners to blow around a defender or to catch up to the play. He's got a world class shot. It's accurate, it's hard and he gets it off fast.
Top Supporting Cast:
Evan Rodrigues set a school record with six assists last Friday night against UMass, Ahti Oksanen has made the move to forward from defense seamlessly. He has a terrific shot and has four multi-goal games including Friday's hat trick against UMass. San Jose Sharks and local kid Danny O'Regan has been the beneficiary of playing with Eichel all season long. He leads the Terriers in goals with 17.
Don't be surprised to see a player like A.J. Greer, Nick Roberto or Nikolas Olsson, guys on the third or fourth line, to come up big tonight. The Terriers have the obvious advantage in depth with all of Harvard's injuries. Let's see if BU can take advantage of that.
Keys to Victory:
The Terriers have revenge on their mind and don't need any further motivation when playing in the tournament that they have dominated more than any other school. BU needs to take advantage of its opportunities and shut down Harvard's top line of Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo.
Harvard (12-5-2 overall, 8-4-2 ECAC)
The Crimson have been rocked by injuries to key players for a second consecutive season and it is finally catching up to them. Ted Donato's team climbed up the various national polls as it started 10-1-2, but has since gone 2-4-0. Defenseman Patrick McNally is out for the rest of the regular season and top six forwards Sean Malone and Alexander Kerfoot have missed considerable time. Luke Esposito, another double digit point producer, has missed the last two games.
One thing that has stood out all season watching Harvard is that it is a good-skating team from top to bottom. Injuries have obviously taken away some of those skating assets, but Harvard will be able to skate with BU. Harvard's strength centers around its top line. Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo have been a dynamic duo in the ECAC Hockey all season. If Kerfoot or Malone return tonight, that will be an added benefit.
Right now the glaring weakness of the Crimson is in the injury department. As mentioned above, the Crimson are down several important men. The lack of depth on the blue line forced Donato to dress student manager Thomas Aiken on Friday night against Union.
Without McNally in the lineup the Crimson made some poor decisions with the puck and were not good protecting the biscuit. The absence of Kerfoot and Malone has also limited the offensive production from the lower lines.
Vesey is the only other offensive player in the tournament that can even come close to matching up offensively with Eichel. He isn't the world class talent of Eichel, but he is a very good junior left wing for the Crimson. He leads the nation in goals per game and is tied with Eichel for most points per game.
Vesey, a Nashville Predators prospect, has always been a hyped prospect, but he never really realized his full potential until this season. He's known for his shot and his knack for scoring garbage goals. It's a compliment as Vesey is willing to go into the dirty areas, tip pucks in traffic or push home rebounds.
Underestimated in his game is his passing ability. He has the ability to draw defenders and then find open teammates. He's a bull out on the ice. He skates with a purpose. He's strong on his skates and is like a freight train barreling around the offensive zone. At times in his career he's been knocked for having a poor work ethic or not being in the best shape, but he's certainly in fine form this season. He could be a major thorn in BU's side Tuesday evening.
Senior goaltender Steve Michalek arguably could have been put in the spot of key player in this game. He'll be charged with being the last line of protection against Eichel and co. At times this year he's been a difference maker between the pipes for the Crimson.
He's athletic and has good agility in the net. The Minnesota Wild prospect is a Loomis Chaffee alum and has really saved his best performance for his last go around in Cambridge. The last few games has seen a drop off in his numbers, but that has more to do with the defense playing in front of him.
Keys to Victory:
Can Michalek stand on his head and help the Crimson to a second victory over the Terriers? Can Vesey continue his point streak and carry Harvard's offense on his back? Both of those things will probably have to happen if Harvard is going to advance to play on the second Monday of February. Harvard, a second period team, has struggled in the first period like BU. Donato's team is the only team to beat BU in overtime all season.
Boston College (16-8-2 overall, 9-5-2 Hockey East)
Following a 4-2 win over New Hampshire on Dec. 6, Jerry York told the media assembled for the press conference that his team would be very good later in the season. No one should have doubted the winningest coach of all-time, but his premonition has come true.
The Eagles are 9-1-1 over their last 11 games and appear to be perfectly hitting their stride as February begins. Even going back to Nov. 14, the Eagles 12-3-2 record is the best in Hockey East over that period.
Some of their younger players are starting to find their footing in college hockey and star defenseman Steve Santini is back from first half wrist surgery. BC's track record as a team that begins to peak for February and the stretch run during the York era is well chronicled. There's nothing to indicate this year won't be more of the same.
It's hard to argue that the defense and goaltending that Jerry York can trot out onto the TD Garden ice on Tuesday night won't be the best of the four teams. Junior captain Michael Matheson and sophomores Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini were all picked 42nd or higher in the NHL Draft. Freshman Noah Hanifin is the unquestioned third best prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft. Many other teams around the country would kill to have Teddy Doherty and Scott Savage, BC's fifth and sixth defenseman, among their top two pairing defenders.
When playing to the top of his game Matheson is one of the best shutdown defenders in college hockey. The first round pick of the Florida Panthers is a great skater and has a good stick, but is prone to making careless decisions with the puck. Some have questioned his ability to remain focused when he's so far above most of his competition.
Santini is still trying to get back to 100 percent, but the New Jersey Devils second round pick is an asset in that his physicality can be intimidating to opposing forwards. McCoshen is probably the least flashy of the top four defensemen, having more of a quiet, but very impactful presence out there.
Hanifin is quickly cementing his place as the clear-cut third best prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft. The former St. Sebastian's star who accelerated to come to BC a year early is no longer showing signs of being a younger-than-normal freshman in college hockey.
His skating ability is second to none and has been obvious the entire season. He's got elite skills with the puck and is a huge help in the breakout and puck possession game for the Eagles. However, it's what Hanifin is doing in the defensive zone that has solidified his future. He's a franchise-changing future NHL defenseman that college hockey fans should cherish watching while he's still in a maroon and gold uniform.
Thatcher Demko has been a brick wall in net outside of a dud thrown out against Maine in Orono two Sundays ago. The sophomore, who missed a few games while away as the starting goaltender for the U.S. team at the World Junior Championship, is a calming presence in net for York's squad. He's an athletic goaltender who is fundamentally sound. Don't expect the Vancouver Canucks prospect to be caught flopping around or making that wild, flashy save.
Last year the Eagles had Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. When Jerry York's team needed a goal, and it was rare as how often BC played with the lead, it was obvious who was being trotted out there. This year that go-to guy isn't as clear cut, but several players are really stepping up.
Freshman and Minnesota Wild first round pick Alex Tuch has become an absolute monster. He's a beast out on the ice, strong on the puck and skates with power. Ryan Fitzgerald had a hat trick against UConn last weekend and the Bruins pick has been somewhat streaky. Freshman Zach Sanford is getting better and sophomores Chris Calnan and Adam Gilmour scored some key goals in January.
Hanifin, a local boy from nearby Norwood, Mass., gets the call here. He's registered at least a point in six of his last eight games and has really come into his own. His ability to move the puck up ice with passing and carrying the puck is uncanny. His ability to help in puck possession, zip the puck up ice and quarterback the power play will be instrumental in this game. Hanifin gets the nod, but Alex Tuch, Ryan Fitzgerald or Michael Matheson easily could have been placed in this spot.
Top Supporting Cast:
Another local kid, Chris Calnan, is this writer's pick for a supporting cast member who will help lift BC to victory on Tuesday night. The sophomore from Norwell, Mass. has 11 goals on the season, four of them game-winners. On three of those four nights, he's pumped in two goals.
More than just his ability to score clutch goals, Calnan has become a big part of this Eagles squad at both ends of the ice. York has entrusted him with being on the ice late in the game in key situations. The big-bodied right winger is showing signs of why the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Keys to Victory:
The Eagles took three of four points from Northeastern earlier in the season, but were on the ropes in the first game at Matthews Arena. A late Adam Gilmour goal salvaged a 1-1 tie. That being said, BC is clearly the better team on paper and should come out on top Tuesday night if it plays to its capabilities.
The defense has gotten in trouble this season when trying to do too much. Matheson, Hanifin and co. just have to play their game and realize there is no one on the ice who is better than them when they're playing their game.
Keep an eye on how BC performs in the second period as that has been the team's best period statistically for the most part.
Northeastern (10-11-4 overall, 6-7-2 Hockey East)
Heading into the season the Huskies were picked to finish in the top four of the league by both the coaches and media in the preseason polls. Many surmised this could be the year Northeastern makes a run for the program's first Beanpot championship since 1988.
Then, Northeastern started out 0-8-1 and the naysayers, including this observer, jumped all over Jim Madigan's team. There was little reason to believe anything would change, but it has. The Huskies are 10-3-3 since that winless start through the first nine games.
It might not have the superstars like Eichel, Vesey or Hanifin, but Northeastern's power play has been a bright spot, especially since the team started to turn the corner. The Huskies are clicking at a rate of 25.3 percent on the man advantage since Nov. 14. It helps when you have players such as Kevin Roy and Mike Szmatula to find open space and create opportunities for themselves and their teammates.
One unusual thing to look for is the possibility of defenseman Colton Saucerman playing the left side up front on the man advantage. It has been a strategy that Madigan and co. have implemented several times over the past few weeks.
It might seem hard to believe for those who haven't paid attention to the Huskies since October, but goaltending is now a position of strength for Northeastern. Clay Witt's numbers fell off dramatically down the stretch last season starting with the Beanpot championship game loss to BC. Witt had a .857 save percentage through three games before missing considerable time with a concussion. Derick Roy's numbers were better, but not where a team needs to have success.
Since the Huskies won their first game against UNH on Nov. 15, Witt has a .922 save percentage and Roy, in more limited action, is at .933. Despite Roy getting three starts in a row before last Saturday's series finale against Notre Dame, expect to see Witt, the team's alternate captain, lead NU out of the tunnel when the team takes the ice for the late game Tuesday night.
It was no secret that the team's perceived weakness heading into the season was its ability to defend. That still likely has not changed, but one thing is for certain. Sophomore and Boston Bruins prospect Matt Benning has really stepped up his game. He's logging a lot of minutes for Jim Madigan's team and has improved drastically from the player fans saw when he first took the Matthews Arena ice. He'll never be the prettiest of skaters, but he's improved in that category and has really learned to make the most of his game. He's got a good stick, he's smart out there and he does fairly well with one-on-one battles.
With that said the Huskies are still a team that will do things in their own zone and even in the neutral zone that will make fans of the Huntington Hounds cringe. It's gotten better as the season has progressed, but NU's penalty kill percentage sits at 74.1 percent, dead last in Hockey East.
In a short tournament, mistakes can be magnified. The Huskies will need to limit defensive blunders, avoid turnovers and careless mistakes with the puck and do some of the little things in their own zone.
Is there any doubt that Kevin Roy is the player on the Huskies roster with the most ability to be a game breaker in this tournament? The junior is the team's leading scorer and won the 2013 Beanpot MVP, just the fifth time in the history of the tournament that a player from a losing team took home top individual honors.
Roy has 11 goals and 15 assists on the season for 26 points, half of which have come on the man advantage. Think Roy isn't important to his team's success? Think again. Northeastern is 8-5-2 when he has a point, 6-2-1 when he scores a goal and 2-6-2 when he's held off the score sheet. 20 of his 26 points have come since NU's first win on Nov. 15 against New Hampshire.
In four Beanpot games Roy has six goals and two assists. That's two points per game for 2012 fourth round pick of the Anaheim Ducks. What does Roy do so well? He's so good at generating time and space for himself and his linemates. He's crafty, he's creative and he's got quick hands and feet which allow him to manipulate the puck and evade opposing defenders. Roy, a left wing, will be centered by Dalen Hedges and will have Mike McMurtry on the right wing.
Top Supporting Cast:
Mike Szmatula, the top scoring rookie in overall games in Hockey East last season, is the second line center and has an innate ability to come up with important goals. He's got that drive to the net and has good vision to find his teammates.
Keys to Victory:
The recipe for success Monday night is very simple. Northeastern needs to get good goaltending, limit mistakes in the defensive zone and neutral zone and its top scorers, Roy and Szmatula, need to come up big against a tough BC defense.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.