What struck me most about Colorado College’s 8-4 win over Boston College was twofold.
First, these Eagles were completely unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of this kind of drubbing and had never had to experience an NCAA tournament loss.
Second, this was not the same CC team that I saw in the Great Lakes Invitational tournament in Detroit back in December.
Just the language the Eagles used to describe what they were going through after their first loss in NCAA tournament play since BC lost the national championship game to Michigan State, 3-1, right here in St. Louis Apr. 7, 2007, said a lot about this team and how success has bred success and shaped the Eagles’ experiences.
“Certainly the two shorthanded goals were really difficult for us to accept,” said BC head coach Jerry York.
Difficult to “accept” – not to overcome, not to bounce back from, but to accept, the idea being that the Eagles had a choice in the matter. I heard that and thought of the standard of excellence that York has established at Boston College and the way in which the Eagles thought it unacceptable to have allowed themselves to be scored on shorthanded, twice. Very telling.
Then there were the comments of seniors John Muse and Joe Whitney. I hate when reporters ask players who have just lost in NCAA tournament play to put their game and experience into perspective on the spot. It’s impossible to do, but both Muse and Whitney said something revealing in their immediate, gut-reaction responses to the game they’d just played and lost.
“We’ve been up here a lot of times after big wins,” said Muse. “It’s something new. Colorado played a great game and things didn’t go our way. It’s a learning experience.”
An NCAA loss – the first in Muse’s career – becomes a learning experience, and he has the presence of mind to realize that. Impressive.
“Coming up here and speaking with you guys after a loss like that, I don’t have any words to describe how I feel right now,” said Whitney. “I just uh…um…we lost the game tonight to a pretty good team in Colorado College, and I guess that’s just the way it goes. You lose one and you’re out now, so. I have no words.”
It’s just the way it goes, but it had never gone that way before for these Eagles. Sure, they didn’t make the tournament in 2009, having had an off year before ending their season with a 3-2 loss to Boston University Mar. 20 in Hockey East playoff action, but they won eight straight NCAA postseason games since their title game loss to Michigan State in 2007, resulting in national championships in 2008 and 2010.
Is there any doubt that the Eagles will use this hard-to-accept learning experience to become an even better program than they already are?
I saw CC play in the Great Lakes Invitational tournament in Detroit Dec. 29-30, where they beat Michigan State 5-4 and lost 6-5 to Michigan. My impression of them then was that they were good, quick, but needed to play better team defense and a more focused game without the puck. I thought goaltender Joe Howe was terrific.
In the MSU game, they led 5-2 after two before allowing two in the third period. Howe made 31 saves in that game against a team that wasn’t particularly offensive-minded this season. I thought CC’s team defense looked suspect in that game, and afterward head coach Scott Owens said that he was happy with the way the team came out but that the Tigers “were very fortunate in the end to win the game…if the game had gone another five minutes, we would have had some real problems.”
In the 6-5 loss to Michigan – a very offensive-minded team that’s had a bit of a down season in that department – the game was back and forth with the Tigers taking the 5-4 lead early in the third on the power play before allowing goals at 14:00 and 15:56. Howe stopped 33 in that one.
The team I saw pummel BC last night – and the score of 8-4 doesn’t indicate how much of a runaway win this was for CC – reminded me of what I saw from the Miami RedHawks since late January (before they lost to UNH today, that is), a team whose every aspect is in synch, from team chemistry to every playing system, and with all the focus and accountability required to win a national championship.
It seems that the Tigers found their groove toward the end of the regular season. “The last few weeks,” said Owens, “we’ve been on a quiet little roll here and it’s been kind of the same formula – power play to give us a spark, Joe Howe to make some key saves, and then our penalty killing which has gotten pretty good the last four or five weeks.”
In Candace Horgan’s feature from last night’s game, she detailed how the Tigers used back-to-back 3-1 losses to Wisconsin – the last game of the regular season and the first game of the WCHA playoffs – to focus going into the WCHA Final Five and NCAA tournament. In all, the Tigers played the Badgers five times between Mar. 4 and Mar. 13, winning three games.
“I think it kind of hardened us and tested us for these tough games we’ve had to play,” said Owens.
“I just thought our chemistry earlier wasn’t as great,” said Rylan Schwartz. “When we played Wisconsin, that’s when it kind of all started. We’ve just been playing better ever since.”
Said Owens, “We’ve been able to play four lines. Our four lines are pretty well balanced, and so we’ve been getting a lot of people involved. And obviously Jaden has taken it to another level. He’s back in game shape and is able to make plays to take it to another level. Schultz is shooting the puck really, really well, and the role players are accepting their job and doing a great job of it.”
Jaden Schwartz was missing from the GLI because of the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he fractured his ankle Dec. 28, keeping him out until Feb. 18. In his first series back – a tie and loss against Bemidji State – Schwartz had a goal and two assists. In his last five games, he’s 4-9-13.
Jaden Schwartz back to game shape, improved team chemistry – it all adds up to the one thing that enabled the Tigers to come back from an early 1-0 deficit and blow away the Golden Eagles. “Guys are playing together as a five-man unit out there,” said Rylan Schwartz.
And that’s a dangerous thing.