When two of the premier programs in the history of college hockey collide Friday in the first game of the NCAA Tournament West Regional, they will do so with one team having a distinct advantage in crowd support.
Despite being the higher seed, Boston University drew the challenge of facing North Dakota in its backyard of Fargo. The Terriers will wear the home uniform and have the last change, but everything else inside the Scheels Center will feel like a road game.
It’s a challenge the BU players and their coaching staff are looking forward to as they begin their quest for the program’s sixth national championship.
“If you’re an elite hockey player, this is a game you want to play in. If I’m a player I think it’d be pretty cool to go play North Dakota in Fargo in front of a packed house with that type of atmosphere. It’s why you come to places like BU to play in games like this,” said head coach David Quinn.
“I’m really excited to go play there,” added BU junior defenseman Brandon Hickey. “As an athlete, you want to go into a hostile building and be able to say you beat a team on their home ice. I’m ready go in there and play in front of a large crowd.”
Cooling down the Fighting Hawk faithful might prove to be a difficult task for a team that has allowed the first goal in nine straight games. Getting off to a good start will be a point of emphasis for the Terriers.
“You want to get the crowd out of it right away and silence them. The first 10 minutes are key. If we go out there and play the right way, that will be huge for us,” said Hickey, a third round pick of the Calgary Flames in the 2014 NHL Draft.
It’s been a rocky road for the preseason favorite in Hockey East. While the talent on paper is undeniable, youth and immaturity have plagued the Terriers at times throughout the regular season. But, despite losing to BC last weekend in the Hockey East Semifinals, and being just 2-3-1 over the final six regular seasons game, Quinn thinks his team is peaking at the right time.
“We’re playing a much smarter brand of hockey. We’ve done a good job defensively. Our penalty kill has been really good. We’re playing a more mature game right now. Over the last month we’ve been more practical and patient,” said Quinn.
Boston University, with four first round picks and four second rounders, has been at its best this season when pushing the pace and using its team speed to its advantage. There have been games where the Terriers have just overwhelmed their opponents and completely dominated possession.
“Our speed for sure,” said Hickey when asked what the strengths of his team are heading into the matchup. “If we get our legs moving and we’re going on the forecheck, that’s when we’re going to be playing our best. If we’re taking too much time with the puck and not moving our feet, we’re going to start getting in trouble.”
Creating good layers and gaps while hemming North Dakota in its own zone will be a crucial part of the game-plan to prevent the Fighting Hawks from having too much possession time.
“Our second defender is huge. We need to make sure our second defender gets into the zone quickly so they don’t have a lot of [attacking] zone time,” Quinn explained.
Keeping the puck away from the likes of Brock Boeser, Tyson Jost and Shane Gersich has been on the minds of the Terriers in preparation and during film sessions.
“You obviously know their top guys, Boeser and Jost, and a couple of their ‘D.’ They’re a fast team. They’re physical. We watched them play Duluth,” said BU captain Doyle Somerby, a New York Islanders fifth round pick in 2012.
Playing their own game and focusing on what they need to do to advance instead of worrying about specific North Dakota schemes will be a talking point for Quinn and his staff as game time approaches.
“Our defensive philosophy doesn’t change no matter who we play. We’ve got to make sure we get there quickly. We have to have our sticks down, our heads up and not be fishing for pucks. We have to end plays,” Quinn said.
While Charlie McAvoy, Dante Fabbro and Chad Krys are known for their offensive flare, their mobility and speed on the backend will be pivotal in limiting chances when North Dakota has the puck in its attacking zone.
“Speed and quickness,” said Somerby. “We want to try and take their time and space away. Blocking shots and taking away shooting lanes. They have a couple of guys who really shoot the puck well and a couple of guys who find seams well in passing.”
Positioning, playing physically and communicating will also be key factors for the BU defense when North Dakota’s stars have the puck in the Terrier end.
“We have to check bodies down low and make sure we’re on the right side of guys. We can’t let guys get on the offensive side of our bodies when we’re heading back to the net. We have to make sure we’re picking up sticks. We have to communicate down low,” Hickey explained.
“That’s a big thing in the ‘D’ zone. You can’t just go out there blindly and expect that everyone knows what they’re doing,” he added.
Friday will be the first contest between the two clubs since BU knocked North Dakota out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a 5-3 win in the Frozen Four Semifinals. While much has changed for both teams, including a new coach for UND, Hickey expects to see some similarities.
“They’re a strong team, a big team, a lot of skill. That’s kind of the way North Dakota has always been. I don’t expect much to have changed. North Dakota always has that high-end talent and they always play hard,” said Hickey.
Quinn brushed off comparisons of the teams that haven’t played in nearly 24 months, choosing instead to liken the Fighting Hawks to a team his club faced in Hockey East last month.
“Maybe a little bit like Notre Dame, a heavy team with skill,” said Quinn.
Somerby and his teammates know the challenge is daunting, but the hope is to use it as motivation to get past North Dakota and onto Saturday’s regional final against the winner of Minnesota-Duluth and Ohio State.
“It’s us against the world out there. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Somerby concluded.