By: Dan Shulman
The Boston University Terriers men’s ice hockey team had a frustrating, yet encouraging, first half of the season. Despite going 10-5-2, the Terriers overcame injury, inexperience, and a grueling travel schedule and currently sit tied for fourth in the pairwise rankings.
The Terriers welcomed a large freshman class which features four former members of the U.S. Under-18 Team. Three of BU’s freshman were selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL draft, with another coming in the mid-second round.
A year that began with lofty expectations for its top prospects quickly saw one of BU’s other freshman step into the limelight. Fifth-round draft choice Patrick Harper, a small-statured forward out of Avon Old Farms – a prep school in Connecticut – immediately showed the impact he would have this season.
The former Winged Beaver turned Terrier potted five goals in the team’s opening exhibition game over Prince Edward Island. Fellow rookie Clayton Keller, chosen seventh overall in the draft, had a hat trick himself in a 10-2 win over the guests from up north.
Five days later, Harper had another hat-trick and an assist against the U.S. Under-18 Team in an 8-2 dismantling of the best junior players in the country. In the regular season opener at Colgate two days after that, same story; two goals for Harper and a victory for the Terriers to start the year.
But the optimism soon faded in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. The Pioneers picked up where they left off in the opening round of last season’s NCAA Tournament, sweeping the Terriers out of Colorado and leaving them with a 1-2-0 record.
However, Coach David Quinn continued to take positives out of every series, noting his team is always a “work in progress.” The penalty kill flourished, limiting Denver to a 2-for-14 conversion rate on the power play with both goals coming on initial rush chances. The defense also stood tall against the nation’s top team, limiting chances on both nights.
Another positive for the Terriers was freshman net-minder Jake Oettinger. Only 17-years-old, Oettinger is the second youngest player in Division 1 men’s hockey. In his first three games at Agganis Arena in the regular season, Oettinger posted a trio of shutouts.
One place Oettinger didn’t thrive was Friday nights on the road. In consecutive Fridays at Northeastern and Michigan, the Terrier freshman allowed four goals, most of which were weak and stoppable shots; granted the defense could’ve done better to lock down the scorer at times.
The Friday night game at Michigan was also the team’s first without Keller following a knee-injury that looked far more severe then it turned out to be. With a speedy recovery process, Keller missed five weeks with a lower-body injury. During his absence, the Terriers went 4-2-1 including a pair of 4-0 losses where the offense clearly lacked a spark.
The Terrier power play also struggled mightily, converting once in its first 24 chances in league play. But when Keller returned, BU lit-up Vermont going 3-for-8 on the man-advantage.
Keller wasn’t the only Terrier sidelined in the first semester. Ryan Cloonan and Nik Olsson missed time with upper-body injuries while John MacLeod was out for isolated games with an undisclosed injury. Tommy Kelley and Oskar Andren also missed stints with a foot and hand injury respectively.
But the team’s depth and character allowed the squad to respond well to the injuries, playing with a next-man-up mentality and working arduously through the first half. Although the Terriers finished the first-half with a confident 5-2 victory at home over Yale, there is much work to be done for the Terriers when it comes to consistency.
In the first game of a series, BU struggles to find its footing and often falters mightily. But the next night is usually a polar opposite, with BU putting a complete, winning effort. When BU does get a win on a Friday, it’s normally an ugly game dominated by the losing team. The night following that win is even worse and normally ends without a victory.
The lack of consistency has been palpable thus far this season, but it has nothing to do with the skillset of the team. There’s a lot of individual talent on this BU hockey team, but as the home-stretch nears, success will boil down to whether or not BU can compete, work, and win together as a team.
One thing that has remained consistent throughout the past four years is conditioning and a stout defense. The Terriers have outscored opponents by 18 this season, including +9 in the third period. The defense has been stingy, only allowing 35 goals in 17 games.
With Coach David Quinn behind the bench, the Terriers seem poised to mature and make a deep winning run in this second half. The longest remaining road trip is a four-hour bus ride to Orono, Maine for a game against the Maine Black Bears. Nine of the team’s 17 remaining games are at home, two are at TD Garden, one is at Fenway, and three other road games are in the state of Massachusetts.
The Terriers play Hockey East bottom-dwellers Maine, Massachusetts, and Merrimack a combined six times in the second semester and host Notre Dame for a pair on the final weekend of the regular season. If BU plays smart, disciplined hockey, their fate is in their own hands.
With a schedule tilting in their favor and a confident, springy young team ready to erupt, look for the Terriers to begin climbing the tower towards an April game in Chicago throughout the second half.