1. This team was floundering a month ago. What happened? What is the biggest difference between now and then?
The biggest difference is clearly goaltending. When the calendar turned to January, Cory Schneider was playing like his usual great self, and the youngest team in the country was headed towards a #1 ranking. However, as soon as they attained that #1 ranking, they ran into a BU team at home that was heating up. In front of one of the most jacked-up regular season crowds to watch a BC game in quite some time, the entire team imploded after the Eagles took an early 2-0 lead, including Schneider. The Eagles followed the BU loss with a mediocre 4-6-1 stretch that saw them squander the 8 point lead that they once had in Hockey East. The game at Lowell on Feb. 25 comes to mind as a great example of how off Schneider was during his second half slide, letting him some real stinkers in a 6-3 loss to a Riverhawk team that was headed nowhere. Oh, and don't forget that lost weekend up in Maine. To add insult to injury, after the last night of Hockey East play, arch-rival BU has squeaked ahead of BC by one point in the standings, and rival Maine had pushed BC down to a #3 seed in the Hockey East playoffs, thanks to winning a tie-breaker against the Eagles. Man, at that point most BC fans had written off the team as one that was experiencing growing pains, had done some "good things" this season, and would come back next season and show a major improvement. Sure, the defense in front of him wasn't great either, but Schneider was letting up some major league softies. However, Schneider came alive during the Hockey East Quarters against UVM, literally saving the Eagles' season with some truly clutch goaltending in front of a sparse crowed at Kelly Rink. What hardcore Eagle fan can forget the jaw-dropping save that Schneider made in OT of Game 1 of the series against UVM, where he somehow stoned UVM Center Torrey Mitchell on a highlight save? Less than 30 seconds later, Peter Harrold scored on a miracle shot to give the Eagles the win, and propel them forward into the Hockey East title game, where BC dropped a hard-luck OT decision to BU. And of course, don't forget the goal by Chris Collins in that game, which sent the game into OT, to begin with. It seems like that turn of events against UVM, anchored Scheider's goaltending really got the Eagles moving forward with some positive momentum. The BC defense still wasn't that great in the Hockey East playoffs, although freshmen D-men Brett Motherwell and Anthony Aiello really showed some improvement down the stretch.
I'm hanging this turnaround almost exclusively on Schneider - his dramatic play completely turned around this young BC team, got them thinking positive thoughts, and has motivated them to make the kind of improvements that the skaters made once the pock dropped against Miami in the NCAA tournament. It was kind of like a chain reaction, so to speak - Scheider put the team on his back, and the team eventually began improving in other areas as well, namely confidence, maturity, and on-ice awareness.
2. How do we match up against Wisconsin?
I'll give you the same thing I've said for every team that BC has played in its last several games, starting with Maine in the Hockey East semis - I don't see BC having much of a chance unless Schneider steals the show. Against Maine (and almost against BU in the Hockey East title game), this proved to be true - the BC skaters didn't play too great, but Schneider came through and nearly stole the Hockey East title. However, this young BC team has been full of surprises in the NCAA tournament. They've played unpredictably, getting contributions from many different players. Who would have thought that Dan Bertram, once every BC hockey fan's whipping boy for his ponderous mistakes that set the opposing team up on odd man rushes, would turn into a certifiable hero during the NCAA tournament, playing smart hockey and laying people out with his checks (!!).
Honestly, though, Wisconsin is going to be VERY tough to beat in the National Title game. They have a goalie who is arguably playing as good, or even better, than Schneider right now in Brian Elliot. They will have the obvious home ice advantage, having never left their home state for the entire tournament. I mean, this guy just had a 262:26 shutout streak, a WCHA record, snapped in Wisconsin's win over Maine! Considering it came during the most intense portion of the season...that's impressive as all hell. Wisconsin has the 3rd best PK unit in the country, and plays all around fundamentally strong hockey, especially in their own zone. They have far more upperclassman on their roster than BC...then again, what's new for the Eagles in that comparison?? The Badgers also have more balanced scoring. They are also bigger. This means one thing for the Eagles, if they are going to win - BC needs contributions from all 4 lines, and all 3 defense pairings on Saturday night...everything needs to be left out on the ice, and the Eagles HAVE to minimize the "rookie mistakes" that sometimes flare up in their game (you saw a bunch of them in the UND win). The edge is solidly in favor of the Badgers in nearly every category, but these Eagles make their own luck, are being carried by a great goalie, and are getting contributions from many of the younger guys on the team (which has to happen for this BC team to do anything). I'm calling a Badgers win, 4-2, but I would not be (completely) shocked if the Eagles pulled off a dramatic stunner and capped and NCAA run similar to the one that Rollie Massimino's Villanova Wildcats had.
3. What are the keys to the game?
Well, playing off what I said above, the keys are follows for both teams:
- minimize mistakes
- don't get discouraged by Elliot's play, keep up the pressure and get as many shots on net as possible
- stay aggressive on the PK...the aggressive Eagle PK unit has broken backs in March.
- play conservative and solid in front of Elliot - don't set up easy BC scoring chances.
- play the body, play the body, play the body - wear down the smaller and younger BC team, and set them up for a late-game loss
- get traffic in front of Schneider, for deflections and rebounds.
4. IF we win, how will this compare to the 2001 Championship? It seemed like 2001 was a culmination for a talented, veteran team. This year seems like some young guys who shouldn't even be here. Your take?
As I said above, I would equate this run to Villanova's run from the 1980s. A halfway decent team that had its struggles during the regular season, only to turn it around in as unlikley a way possible, first just getting themselves into the tournament to begin with (they would have been OUT if they did not beat UVM, or even Maine), and then getting themselves deep. Considering Coach York's battle against prostrate cancer, the fact that this is the youngest team in the country, the fact that this team was mired in what seemed to be a dead-end slump, and the fact that the title game is being played on the home ice of the team that has been viewed as the best in the country for most of the season...well, holy crap...I think I just convinced myself that this would be better than a bitchslap to Pat Ewing's Hoya grill!! With so much against these Eagles, a national title in these circumstances would be a tremendous, tremendous achievement, and should result in York getting waived into the Hockey Hall of Fame in an emergency induction ceremony before April has passed us by. This would be completely different from the 2001 title, but almost just as good. Win or lose, however, this BC team is set up for great things in the coming seasons, with the invaluable experience that they have gained during this run.