NCAA hockey tournament preview: Despite low seed, BU could be a threat

The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/teams/ban/" data-ylk="slk:Boston University Terriers">Boston University Terriers</a> will be a scary team in the NCAA tournament. (Getty)
The Boston University Terriers will be a scary team in the NCAA tournament. (Getty)

BOSTON — The Terriers knew they had to do it the hard way.

On Jan. 6, they lost 3-0 to a not-great Maine team and, by their coach’s own admission, played poorly.

David Quinn inserted a number of BU players who had been away from campus for a month with various World Junior teams into the lineup, and they gave up 37 shots in a loss to drop to 8-11-1 on the season, giving them the 19th-worst winning percentage in the country. Things were looking rather bleak.

“I made a colossal mistake on Jan. 6 when all the World Junior guys came back, and I played them in that game,” said BU coach David Quinn, who won his second league postseason title in four years on Saturday. “I never should have done that. We lost 3-0 to Maine and we were reeling.”

The next week they won at UNH, then tied an excellent Providence team back at home and looked very good doing it. Those two results were the first snowballs that started something of an avalanche; BU won the next five games, had a couple not-great results while star center Jordan Greenway was off playing in the Olympics, then won six out of the next seven, including the school’s ninth Hockey East title last Saturday, in a game they couldn’t afford to lose.

After being 42nd-best in the nation over the first four months of the season, their win percentage since then ranks second. Though they went three games under .500 through their first 20, BU now stands at 21-13-4 and won Hockey East’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament.

They reignite an ancient college hockey rivalry against No. 3 seed Cornell at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Worcester, Mass.

The breakdown is this: In the first 20 games of the season, BU was dead even in goals, but outshot opponents dramatically. They were, in short, suffering from a bad PK (76.5 percent), a so-so power play (20.9 percent), and getting roughly .900 goaltending from 2017 Dallas Stars first-rounder Jake Oettinger.

Since then? They’re 13-2-3 with a plus-20 goal difference, plus-94 shot difference, a power play that’s a bit better (23.1 percent), a PK that’s much better (81.5 percent), and most importantly, getting once-again-elite numbers from Oettinger, who’s gone .930 in BU’s last 18 games.

“I think Jake would be the first to tell you he didn’t have a great first half,” Quinn said. “It’s not easy being a first-round draft pick, wanting to play on the World Junior team. The pressure’s real. Everyone was asking me, ‘How’s Jake doing, is he gonna be okay?’ And I said, ‘Let’s see how he reacts when he turns 19 in December.'”

Oettinger was, of course, great last season, so for him to figure it out, however you want to define that, is something that makes BU a scary team going forward. The last time he had a single-game save percentage of less than .900 was more than a month ago; before the new year he did it eight times in 18 appearances. He claimed the Hockey East tournament MVP award because he went .945 across four games, two of which went to overtime through no real fault of his own, and that included a 30-save shutout in the final.

Less discussed, however, has been the emergence of BU’s top line, with Minnesota Wild second-round pick Jordan Greenway centering undrafted Drew Melanson and draft-eligible Brady Tkachuk, who could (should?) go somewhere in the top 5 in this year’s draft.

There aren’t a lot of U-19 draft-eligibles in college hockey this year, but Tkachuk is right in the middle in terms of points per game on a team that didn’t score as much as some of his peers’ did. Moreover, Tkachuk and Greenway didn’t really take off as a major offensive threat — they figured into four of BU’s five non-empty-net goals last weekend — until a little later in January, when Quinn finally got the right idea about how to cure his ailing man advantage and moved Tkachuk up to the first unit.

Since they promoted Tkachuk, sparking a 4-3 win at Merrimack on Jan. 19, Tkachuk and Greenway both have eight points on the power play in 16 games. Before that, they had two and seven, respectively, in 22.

“Brady can really see the ice, he passes it well, he’s got a real good idea of what a power play entails,” Quinn said, noting that he wanted to give some veterans the chance to work on the power play early in the year. “He just didn’t have the puck enough in the first half. When he got back from World Juniors I grabbed him and said, ‘Listen I’m gonna put you on the halfwall. We need to free you up a little bit more.’ Our power play’s been clicking close to 30 percent, somewhere in that neighborhood since we put him there.”

Combine that with Oettinger playing like Oettinger again and hey, all of a sudden, the once-limp BU special teams are really clicking. They’ve always been good at 5-on-5, but special teams have been an inexplicable problem for them the past few years; no more.

Despite all its recent success, BU nonetheless entered the Hockey East tournament basically needing to win it to make the NCAAs (at least, without getting a ton of help elsewhere, and results didn’t break their way on Friday). Having done gotten to this point required a lot of hunger, tenacity, and all that other coach-speak. It doesn’t hurt to have the ability to dress 11 drafted players, including all six of their defensemen, in the title game. However, the brand of hockey on Commonwealth Ave. looks a lot different than it did even four or five months ago.

The difference between this year’s BU team, which really seems to get by more on getting the puck into the zone and working the cycle, and last year’s, which relied too much on its overwhelming skill to win every game, is clear. When last season didn’t go how they wanted, and then things got worse in the first half of this campaign, it was kind of a “back to the drawing board” situation for all involved. The coaching staff needed buy-in on a new, simpler, and arguably better approach.

“I thought as the season went on we started understanding what we needed to do to be successful,” Quinn said. “And once we started having some success playing a particular way, I think they said, ‘Oh well this is working maybe we should keep trying this.'”

When you can get elite talent — BU has 10 players who will have been drafted in the first three rounds come June — to play blue-collar hockey, good things usually happen. While it often requires the Terriers to grind out wins, they’ve been doing it for a while now.

For a team that was dead in the water in early January, they’re looking like an awfully tough out all of a sudden.

Meet the field…

No. 1 St. Cloud State Huskies (25-8-6)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, having won the NCHC regular-season title, and lost in the conference final.

Key stat: There’s nothing that St. Cloud is truly elite at, except maybe faceoffs (which don’t matter much), but they’re in the top 15 in a bunch of statistical categories: goals for per game, goals against per game, power play percentage, power plays per game, penalties committed, and shots per game, among others.

Top player: Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt is in the Hobey Baker top 10, and was third in the nation in points per game from the blue line, as well as playing critical shutdown minutes for a borderline-elite defense.

NHL draft picks: 4 (Buffalo’s Will Borgen and Judd Peterson; Los Angeles’s Mikey Eyssimont; Montreal’s Ryan Poehling)

Quick fact: St. Cloud is one of very few teams to actually split goaltending duties for most of the year, with draft-eligible freshman David Hrenak (.919) and undrafted junior Jeff Smith (.910) making 24 and 19 appearances, respectively.

No. 2 University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-9-2)

How they got here: They won the Big Ten regular-season and postseason titles to automatically qualify.

Key stat: The Irish were so much better than the field in their conference that they clinched the Big Ten regular-season championship in early February.

Top player: Sophomore goaltender Cale Morris led the nation in save percentage this season at .946, and made more saves than anyone in the country (1,089 in just 33 games). He should win the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender.

NHL draft picks: 6 (Chicago’s Dennis Gilbert; Colorado’s Cam Morrison; Columbus’s Andrew Peeke; Florida’s Joe Wegwerth; Montreal’s Jake Evans; New Jersey’s Matt Hellickson).

Quick fact: Notre Dame didn’t lose a single game from Oct. 27 to Jan. 19, ripping off 16 straight wins. They outscored 51-22 in that stretch.

No. 3 Cornell University Big Red (25-5-2)

How they got here: They had an at-large bid as winners of the ECAC regular-season title, but lost in the conference semifinals.

Key stat: The Big Red conceded just 49 goals and 795 shots in 32 games this season, ranking first and third in goals and shots against per night this season. But they also had the 12th-best per-game offense in the nation.

Top player: Goaltender Matt Galajda had nine shutouts in just 28 appearances this year. Pretty good.

NHL draft picks: 6 (Arizona’s Jared Feigl; Chicago’s Beau Starrett; Edmonton’s Matt Cairns; New York Rangers’ Morgan Barron; Pittsburgh’s Anthony Angello; St. Louis’s Dwyer Tschantz).

Quick fact: The Big Red only have four guys who cleared 20 points this season; top scorer Anthony Angello didn’t finish in the top 125 in national scoring.

No. 4 Ohio State University Buckeyes (24-9-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the Big Ten title game.

Key stat: The Buckeyes don’t take a lot of penalties (tied for 12th-fewest in the nation), but it almost doesn’t matter when they do. They have the best PK in the country — at 89.3 percent.

Top player: Flyers draft pick Tanner Laczynski scored 15 goals on 155 shots this season. The latter number ties him for seventh in the nation this year.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Philadelphia’s Tanner Laczynski; Toronto’s Dakota Joshua)

Quick fact: Goaltender Sean Romeo went .925 in his first season for the Buckeyes, after transferring from Maine. His career save percentage before transferring? Just .903.

No. 5 Denver University Pioneers (22-9-8)

How they got here: They earned an automatic bid as winners of the NCHC tournament.

Key stat: Denver’s average margin of victory was fourth-highest in the country at plus-1.26,

Top player: Electrifying forward Henrik Börgstrom cracked 50 points this season, one of five players to break the half-century mark. He’ll probably go pro after this season.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Chicago’s Ian Mitchell and Blake Hillman; Anaheim’s Troy Terry; Florida’s Henrik Börgstrom; San Jose’s Dylan Gambrell).

Quick fact: These guys are the reigning national champions, brought basically everyone back — save for a certain Hobey Baker-winning defenseman now plying his trade in New Jersey — and may have taken a “We could maybe afford to take the regular season a little less seriously” approach that appears to have served them well.

No. 6 Minnesota State Mavericks (29-9-1)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid as winners of the WCHA regular-season title, but lost in the conference semifinals.

Key stat: Nobody scored more goals, or goals per game, this year than the Mavs.

Top player: Senior forward CJ Suess led the team in scoring this year with 22 goals and 43 points.

NHL draft picks: 1 (Winnipeg’s CJ Suess).

Quick fact: For the second year in a row, Minnesota State was the best team in the WCHA but didn’t even play in the conference final. They’re also the best possession team in the country, taking 61 percent of the attempts at 5-on-5 this season.

No. 7 Providence College Friars (23-11-4)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost the Hockey East title game.

Key stat: The Friars get by on a balanced attack; they have only three players with at least 30 points, but five have at least 12 goals.

Top player: I really love undersized D Jacob Bryson, who eats big minutes and led the team with 21 assists this season. He can make a lot happen but you’d probably like to see him shoot the puck more.

NHL draft picks: 8 (Buffalo’s Jacob Bryson; Edmonton’s Vincent Desharnais; Minnestoa’s Brandon Duhaime; Montreal’s Hayden Hawkey; New York Islanders’ Ben Mirageas; Pittsburgh’s Kasper Bjorkvist; St. Louis’s Erik Foley; Washington’s Brian Pinho)

Quick fact: Goalie Hayden Hawkey didn’t have a great start to the year, but is .928 since Christmas and it’s really hard to make anything happen against a team this comprehensively dominant.

No. 8 University of Michigal Wolverines (20-14-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the Big Ten semifinals.

Key stat: The gap between forwards Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone (46 and 40 points, respectively) and the next-highest scorer on the team is reminiscent of Taylor-Hall-in-New-Jersey at 12 points in 37 team games.

Top player: That player who’s third on the team in scoring? It’s 18-year-old Quinn Hughes, who’s going to be a very high draft pick in June. He has 28 points in 34 games from the blue line in his draft year. That’s Zach Werenski-like draft-year production (though Hughes is like nine months older than Werenski was at this point).

NHL draft picks: 10 (Carolina’s Luke Martin and Jack LaFontaine; Arizona’s Brendan Warren; Boston’s Jack Becker Dallas’s Joseph Cecconi; Minnesota’s Nicholas Boka; New York Islanders’ Nick Pastujov; Philadelphia’s Cooper Marody;  San Jose’s Josh Norris; Vancouver’s Will Lockwood).

Quick fact: Coach Mel Pearson is the only coach in Div. 1 history to ever lead two separate programs to NCAA tournament appearances in back-to-back seasons. He made it last year with Michigan Tech.

No. 9 Northeastern University Huskies (23-9-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the Hockey East semifinals.

Key stat: This is a top-heavy lineup; their three highest-scoring players have a combined 75 goals. The entire rest of the team only scored 59. But here’s why it doesn’t matter: The team only allowed 78 goals all season. Just incredible.

Top player: Leading scorer Adam Gaudette (30-30-60 in 37 games) should win the Hobey Baker. This year’s performance is a slight improvement on 26-26-52 in 37. He “only” had 30 points in 41 as a freshman.

NHL draft picks: 7 (Chicago’s Dylan Sikura and Ryan Shea; Carolina’s Matt Filipe; Montreal’s Cayden Primeau; New Jersey’s Jeremy Davies; St. Louis’s Nolan Stevens; Vancouver’s Adam Gaudette).

Quick fact: After good teams were sunk by subpar goaltending the past few years, rookie netminder Cayden Primeau (.932) has been electrifying, and exactly what they needed.

No. 10 Clarkson University Golden Knights (23-10-6)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the ECAC final.

Key stat: Something to worry about for Clarkson is that they went just 8-7-5 in the second half of the season, and got outshot by an average margin of seven per game.

Top player: Jake Kielly is basically the reason they made the tournament — he’s eighth in the country with a .928 save percentage — but like the rest of the team, his second half has been a slog. He’s just .908 since Christmas.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Ottawa’s Kelly Summers; Philadelphia’s Terrance Amorosa).

Quick fact: Sophomore forward Sheldon Rempal led the team in shots with 162 in 38 games. No one else even cleared 94.

No. 11 Penn State University Nittany Lions (18-14-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the Big Ten semifinals.

Key stat: The Nittany Lions ranked tops in the country in shots on goal per game, at 40.5. They were also bottom-20 in shots allowed per game at 31.5. Point is, Penn State games are extremely fun to watch.

Top player: Colorado pick Denis Smirnov missed a bunch of time early in the season but still scored nearly a point a game, including leading the team with 15 goals despite playing as much as eight fewer games than everyone else on the team.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Buffao’s Brett Murray; Chicago’s Evan Barratt; Colorado’s Denis Smirnov; Los Angeles’s Cole Hults; Pittsburgh’s Nikita Pavlychev)

Quick fact: Goalie Peyton Jones gets a lot of crap for his low save percentage (.908 for the year) and, I would say, deservedly so. But he’s .921 in his last 24 appearances and if this team can get that level of goaltending this weekend, look out.

No. 12 University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (21-16-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid but lost in the NCHC semifinals.

Key stat: The Bulldogs are sixth in power play efficiency and 13th on the PK. They’re also plus-25 at full strength. It is therefore unclear to me how they lost 16 games.

Top player: Hunter Shepard is the reason this team is here, with a .924 save percentage on the season. He didn’t get a decision in just four of the team’s 40 games this year, and the Bulldogs didn’t win any of them (0-2-2).

NHL draft picks: 6 (Minnesota’s Nick Swaney and Avery Peterson; Dallas’s Riley Tufte; Los Angeles’s Mikey Anderson; New Jersey’s Joey Anderson; Winnipeg’s Dylan Samberg).

No. 13 Princeton University Tigers (19-12-4)

How they got here: They won the ECAC title to automatically qualify.

Key stat: They had two guys score 50 points this season. Before this, they had just three players ever clear 50 points in a season; this is a team that existed in the 1900-01 season, mind you.

Top player: The leading scorer in question is Max Veronneau, who had 55 points in 35 games to set the all-time single-season scoring record for them. He had 38 assists.

NHL draft picks: 0

Quick fact: Veronneau had 38 assists because linemate Ryan Kuffner had 29 goals to enter the tournament second in the country. Neither is in the Hobey top 10 for reasons I cannot understand.

No. 14 Boston University Terriers (21-13-4)

How they got here:  They won the Hockey East title to automatically qualify.

Key stat: With Greenway in the lineup since that Jan. 6 game, BU has outscored opponents 46-24 in 14 games. Since Greenway came back from the Olympics, he has eight points in six games.

Top player: It’s Jake Oettinger. When he’s on, they’re basically impossible to beat.

NHL draft picks: 12 (Nashville’s Dante Fabbro, Patrick Harper, and David Farrance; Arizona’s Brandon Hickey and Cam Crotty; Chicago’s Chad Krys; Colorado’s Shane Bowers; Dallas’s Jake Oettinger; Detroit’s Kasper Kotkansalo; Minneasota’s Jordan Greenway; New York Islanders’ Logan Cockerill; Tampa Bay’s John MacLeod).

Quick fact: BU has eight defensemen on the roster, and seven are drafted. This fact will occasionally occur to me and blow my mind.

No. 15 Michigan Tech University Huskies (22-16-5)

How they got here:  They won the WCHA title to automatically qualify.

Key stat: Jake Lucchini leads the team in scoring with 16 goals and 37 points in 43 games, but I think they would probably say they’re just a team that’s fairly deep; they have 10 guys with at least 18 points.

Top player: You might say it’s Joel L’Esperance, who was fourth on the team in scoring but is their 200-foot center that makes everything happen at both ends of the ice.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Pittsburgh’s Dane Birks; San Jose’s Joel L’Esperance)

Quick fact: This team drew more power plays (203) than anyone else in the country. They’re playing the team that both drew and conceded the third-fewest.

No. 16 Air Force Academy Falcons (22-14-5)

How they got here:  They won the Atlantic Hockey title to automatically qualify.

Key stat: These guys led Atlantic Hockey in goals allowed with just 91 in 41 games (tied with Army). The guys at the back end needed all the help they could get, though, because the Falcons only scored 110 goals all year.

Top player: That excellent team defense? Billy Christopoulos, who appeared in literally every game for them this year, posted a .920, so that’s a good reason why.

NHL draft picks: 0

Quick fact: Air Force has both the most seniors in the tournament (8) and most freshmen (12). What the heck happened to their sophomore and junior classes, folks?

NHL teams represented

In all, 29 of 31 NHL teams have at least one prospect in the NCAA tournament this year. Here’s the breakdown:

Chicago: 9

Minnesota: 5

Buffalo, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh: 4

Arizona, Carolina, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Jersey, New York Islanders, San Jose, Winnipeg: 3

Colorado, Edmonton, Ottawa, St. Louis, Vancouver: 2

Anaheim, Boston, Columbus, Detroit, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington: 1

The only two without representation are Calgary and Vegas, two teams of cowards.

Schedule (all times Eastern)

Friday

Michigan Tech vs. Notre Dame (Bridgeport, Ct., regional), 3 p.m., ESPN2

Air Force vs. St. Cloud (Sioux Falls, S.D., regional), 4 p.m., ESPNU

Clarkson vs. Providence (Bridgeport regional), 6:30 p.m., ESPNU

Minnesota-Duluth vs. Minnesota State (Sioux Falls regional), 7:30 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday

Boston University vs. Cornell (Worcester, Mass., regional), 1 p.m., ESPNews

Princeton vs. Ohio State (Allentown, Pa., regional), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU

Northeastern vs. Michigan (Worcester regional), 4:30 p.m., ESPNews

Bridgeport regional final, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Penn State vs. Denver (Allentown regional), 4:30 p.m., ESPN3

Sioux Falls regional final, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Sunday
Worcester regional final, 4 p.m., ESPN2

Allentown regional final, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

What to read next

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes