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BU Hockey Maturing Into Championship Team

Fabbro and Roberto John Corneau/SB Nation

Boston University enters Tuesday night’s game at Merrimack having won its last eight games, matching the longest winning streak of the David Quinn era.

The 2014-15 team, led by Jack Eichel, won eight straight from Feb 28 through April 9, ultimately falling one game short of a national title. All signs point to this year’s version of the Terriers being able to continue this hot streak en route to collecting trophies in February, March and maybe April.

While the 2016-17 team doesn’t have the once in a generation talent of Eichel, BU is loaded with first and second rounders who will be playing hockey for a living in the near future.

While the first half brought plenty of ups and downs for the Terriers, it is becoming clear that this is a group that can win a national championship. And the reasons run far deeper than just the myriad of super stars on the top two lines.

Youth is Maturing

There were moments of immaturity that plagued the Terriers during the first half. Quinn spoke to the importance of his team maturing following the sweep of Boston College.

This is a young team whose stars are all freshmen and sophomores. With the thrilling highlight reel plays come taking chances which can result in mistakes that lead to goals at the other end.

However, BU appears to be limiting those mistakes and maturing into a cohesive unit. After holding on for dear life in its home win over BC, the Terriers had a much better third period to finish off their rival a few nights later a few miles down the road at Conte Forum.

BU has allowed just three goals over its last four games while scoring 12 times during that same span. It can’t be underestimated the role senior captain Doyle Somberby plays in leading this group. It also helps to have a sophomore alternate captain, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, who plays as complete a game as any player in Hockey East or a dynamic sophomore defenseman, Charlie McAvoy, who wore a letter for the U.S. at the World Juniors.

Grit and Thump

After BU’s sweep of BC, Quinn used the words grit and thump to describe his third and fourth lines. He emphasized that all four of his lines are important and provide something a little bit different.

While the first two lines are loaded with future NHL players, the third and fourth lines bring energy and spunk to the ice sheet. Freshman Patrick Curry, an older newcomer, has been a pleasant surprise. He’s come up with some big goals, including the game-winner at BC, but he’s drawn penalties and played with an edge.

Ryan Cloonan has been snakebit offensively, but he’s one of the best skaters in Hockey East and his speed has been an asset. Nick Roberto and Niklas Olsson have been very good this season playing their roles to perfection.

Any championship team needs players who can play the role of unexpected hero or just be responsible and provide energy and grit that acts as a glue to bringing the team through to the end of close games.

Importance of Possession

Analytics has taken the hockey world by storm over the past few years. Corsi, Fenwick and retrievals are all tracked by every NHL team and by most college programs. The defensemen that BU trots out on a nightly basis provide the type of puck-moving capability that gives the team such an edge.

Led by McAvoy, the first round pick of the Boston Bruins last summer, the BU defense does a terrific job of breaking the puck out of its own zone, pushing the pace in transition, entering the attacking zone successfully and having the puck on its stick more than the opposition’s.

McAvoy is a high risk, high reward type of player. He’ll pinch or join the rush at times that will ultimately lead to the other team having an odd man rush the other way. However, his value far outweighs the negative. With teams being so good at defending in their own zones these days, transitioning from defense to offense has taken on a larger role than ever before. McAvoy provides that elite skill set that can turn defense into offense in the blink of an eye.

Fellow 2016 first rounder Dante Fabbro and second rounder Chad Krys also skate well and are puck transporters. Brandon Hickey can play the role of physical, shutdown defender while also being able to carry the puck and move it effectively. Somerby and John MacLeod, the third pairing, bring the physical toughness that teams need.

Game Changers

Freshman Clayton Keller, the seventh overall selection by the Arizona Coyotes in 2016, is the type of dynamic offensive talent that can change a game. Since returning from an early season knee injury, he’s scored a point or more in each game he’s played in. His speed, hands and creativity with the puck on his stick is unmatched.

Forsbacka Karlsson has always been a good two-way center since arriving on Commonwealth Ave, but the Bruins prospect is finally coming into his own as an offensive weapon. He started to step up when the Terriers were missing a lot of their stars during the World Juniors. He’s riding a seven-game point streak in which he’s scored seven goals and added four assists.

Freshman Patrick Harper’s production has cooled as of late, but he’s still a player who can do something special with the puck on his stick anytime he’s on the ice. He’s one of those players who can change speeds and make plays that leave you wondering if he has eyes in the back of his head.

Jordan Greenway has a point in eight straight games and is contributing more offensively this season, but his physical play down low, along the walls and in front of the net is what’s going to mean the most to this team going forward. The Minnesota Wild prospect is a behemoth who has seemingly won every puck battle he’s been involved in this season.

Goaltending Matters

Freshman Jake Oettinger is an immensely talented goaltender who possesses the ability to change a game. His .938 save percentage ranks fifth nationally and first in Hockey East.

What’s even more impressive is he’s a true freshman who didn’t turn 18 until December 18th. His poise and composure in the crease is truly remarkable. He’s a prototypical modern era goaltender whose size, athleticism and fundamentals allow him to make saves look easy.

Oettinger has plenty of added motivation, outside of just the desire to help his team win hockey games. He is widely considered one of the top goaltending prospects for the 2017 NHL Draft. Scouts are watching his every move this season.

He also had to sit and watch his teammates win the World Junior Championship as the third string goaltender. Don’t think for one minute that the perceived snub hasn’t served as motivation, and will continue to do so. His save percentage is .956 since returning from the WJC, .972 excluding the outdoor game against UMass at Fenway Park.

BU fans should know better than anyone that a rookie goaltender isn’t a deterrent to winning it all. Freshman Kieran Millan led the program to its last national championship in the 2008-09 season. Rival Boston College won the year before with a freshman, John Muse, between the pipes. A sophomore led North Dakota to the title last year.

In fact, Yale’s Jeff Malcolm is the only senior goaltender to guide his team to a NCAA Championship in the past decade. Since the turn of the century, only four of the seventeen championships have been won with seniors between the pipes.