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NCAA Hockey 101: Boston College still struggling despite appearances

Ron Greco #28 of the Boston College Eagles celebrates his goal against the Northeastern Huskies with teammates Jesper Mattila #8, Julius Mattila, #26, David Cotton #17 and Connor Moore #7 (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Last February in this very space, I made the case that Boston College was the kind of team that could pummel bad teams and drowned against good ones.

They rarely won against teams ranked in the top 25 in the Pairwise, but annihilated bottom-35 opponents to a ludicrous extent. At the time, they were 3-7 against those teams we could categorize as good, and 13-0-2 against everyone else. The underlying numbers, goal totals, and everything else told the story that while the Eagles’ record was very good, the likelihood that they’d do anything in the final few weeks of the season against a slate of elite teams were low.

In the end, BC won a share of the Hockey East regular-season title thanks to how badly it beat the bottom two-thirds of the conference, but in doing so also became the first team to ever win the league and fail to make the NCAA tournament; they won just three of their 10 games after the column published.

But that was last year. BC went through a lot of turnover in the summer and maybe it was going to take a while for them to get on their feet.

So this year, sure, the Eagles went undefeated in November, running up a 7-0-1 record after a dismal start to the season. They’re now 8-5-2 and sitting high in the Pairwise, and their supporters would point out that they’ve also played the 10th-toughest schedule in the nation right now.

Of course, if you want to draw the October/November changeover as the dividing line in the season, when BC “figured it out,” one must also acknowledge this salient truth: The average PWR ranking of BC’s October opponents was about 12th, and in November, that dropped to 46th.

The question, then, is: Why is this team any different from last year’s?

It may be early in the season, but it so far appears the answer is “It isn’t.”

Now, at this point in the year, the Pairwise is extremely volatile; over the weekend, Wisconsin (to which BC lost 5-2 but outshot 31-22 on Oct. 13) went from 16th on Friday to 26th on Saturday and then back up to 25th on Sunday. Some teams that are top-25 now, like UNH, are probably going to drop out as the season moves along. Likewise, Harvard and Quinnipiac are in the high 30s and mid-40s, and aren’t likely to stay there forever despite their slow starts. With that having been said, I can’t imagine a universe in which you can look at the following numbers and not conclude these are effectively the same issues:

Moreover, these numbers from last year look a lot worse for BC if you shave the cut-off point down to “teams that made the NCAA tournament,” which again, BC did not.  That is to say, it’s hard to buy BC as being anything even resembling a team that should be categorized as being in the top quartile of the country in terms of success, or expectations for success going forward.

(The PDO breakdown is this: They’re 99.5 so far this season after being 101.2 last year. Splitting it up, they went 99.8 PDO against top-25 teams in 2016-17, and it’s 97 this year due largely to poor goaltending in those games. But against bottom-35 teams, BC PDOed 103.6 last year and so far this year is humming along at 102.5.)

I’ve seen the Eagles several times this season, nearly all against teams I suspect are better than them. That includes the 45th-in-the-Pairwise Harvard, which the Eagles tied 4-4 on Friday and got outshot by a wide margin, and in only two of them — a weird 4-1 win against a borderline-excellent Northeastern team and a convincing 2-1 win over a poor UConn club — did I feel as though they outplayed their opponents. In just the games I attended, the Eagles got outscored 18-22 (45 percent) and outshot 196-201 (49.4 percent).

So maybe that’s going to color my opinions, but if I’ve seen almost half of their games and they’ve turned in poor performances in most of those against teams that are even border-line elite, then how is the takeaway going to be something other than “This isn’t an elite team?” Especially given what I saw in almost half their 40 games last season, I think it’s only reasonable to proceed with skepticism about how good this team actually is.

BC partisans would, of course, defend this team as being of a certain amount more quality than I’m willing to assign them, and that makes sense. Again, you are what your record says you are in the minds of many people, even those who otherwise understand that even in short seasons like this, you’re more like what your shots-for percentage in all situations says you are.

This weekend, BC will play arch-rival Boston University (a sub-.500 team with a terrible PDO right now but a huge advantage in shots) in a home-and-home, then takes on Northeastern in a rematch the next weekend. The Eagles won the first meeting, but Northeastern still looks like it’s probably the best team in the conference.

That leaves the only other probably-good team in the conference, UMass Lowell, as a concern on the schedule. They play BC three times later this season.

The interest comes not just because these are two opponents that were supposed to be good on a national level, or because they’re critical games with Hockey East points on the line, but because BC went a combined 1-5-0 against them last season. They outshot Lowell in every game but lost all of them, including a nail-biter for the Hockey East postseason title, and outshot BU on aggregate but only won a Hockey East semifinal against them.

These are two series, then, that probably feel like splits on paper; an expectation of BC taking more than four points feels generous given the quality of competition, but also they’re playing well enough to warrant better results than they earned against these teams last year.

Nonetheless, BC’s performance against top teams is something to monitor carefully as the season progresses, because if they’re better than they were last year (just outside the top quarter of the country; good enough to kill the bad teams but not good enough to put up much of a fight against the good ones), they certainly haven’t shown it yet.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Denver (idle)
2. St. Cloud (idle)
3. Notre Dame (swept at Minnesota)
4. Clarkson (beat RPI and Providence in Belfast)
5. Cornell (beat Niagara and BU)
6. Minnesota (got swept by Notre Dame)
7. Minnesota State (lost at Minnesota Duluth)
8. UMass Lowell (idle)
9. North Dakota (took one point from Union)
10. Western Michigan (split with Colgate at home)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast Hockey Goes to College (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.