Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Matty Gryz Returns for the Showdown

Tale of Two Banners
Back on October 17, BU Hockey raised five prestigious banners to commemorate the amazing Jack Eichel era of 2014-15: Hobey Baker Award, Beanpot Championship, Hockey East regular season and playoff titles, and the kelly green 2015 Frozen Four banner for reaching the NCAA Finals. 10 days later, this year's version of BU hockey hit rock bottom, getting swarmed by an ordinary UConn squad 5-2, the Terrier defense in tatters after surrendering four power play goals. "That game at UConn was as bad a game as we've played in two years," said Quinn on BU's Internet coach's show. "We made a mistake and it's 'Close your eyes and hide the women and children!'" Three nights later the Terriers suffered a tight loss to Merrimack and saw their record drop below .500. Bad news was piling up: their top two goalies had been shellacked on consecutive games; their top returning goal scorer Ahti Oksanen had been shut out all year; their #8 national ranking was a mirage. Rock Bottom, indeed.

Gut check for Quinn's Terriers (Courtesy USCHO)
Missing from last year's Frozen Four squad was the nation's leading scorer (Eichel), their premier goalie (Matt O'Connor), and their All-American defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, temporarily sidelined due to off season ACL surgery. Being a captain and watching from the stands as your team struggles on the ice is more painful than a swollen knee. "You want to be contributing to your teammates," said Grzelcyk. "You never want to be sitting on the sidelines."

Saddled with a roster full of freshmen and two shaky goalies, Coach Quinn embraced the challenge of righting his ship without his best defenseman. "If you want to win championships, there's a certain level of physicality you have to have. I don't care how talented you are, you just have to have it. We didn't have it for a while."

Despite the loss to Merrimack on October 30, his squad actually played with some vital desperation, valiantly fighting back from a two-goal deficit and nearly doing it a second time before dropping a hard-fought 4-3 decision. Choosing the right goaltender is often a coach's biggest and most difficult challenge. After BU senior Sean Maguire gave up his fourth goal late in the second period against Merrimack, Quinn's only alternative was Connor LaCouvee, the same goalie who was torched by UConn for five goals earlier that week. Quinn chose to bring in LaCouvee, and the sophomore
Soph Stopper LaCouvee
delivered, stopping every shot he faced in the losing cause at Merrimack. It was a game filled with positive indicators for BU, including the snakebit sniper Oksanen. Despite failing to score, he led the team with 6 shots on goal and seemed destined to bust out. Quinn might have solved his goaltending crisis as well, with Lacouvee becoming a mainstay in the BU nets since coming on in relief. Standing tall against a relentless third period onslaught from #5 Denver the next night, LaCouvee led the Terriers  to a vital OT thriller on Halloween, earning some hard-earned praise from Quinn. "He was immense
in the penalty kill." The Terriers played tough, sacrificed bodies, and beat a national contender in overtime. The emotional game-winning goal, his second tally of the night, came from the rejuvenated Oksanen. "I knew once he got one, they were going to start going in, and that's what happened."
Quinn, who was seen exiting the UConn game with his head hanging to his chest, sounded like a man with a new lease on life after surviving the pot-holed path through October. "I loved how we bounced back, I really thought we got back to playing with grit up at Merrimack." Having checked off two vital bullets on his punch list--goaltender and goal scorer--there was one final item to seal up before his squad was complete.

Quinn broke the story to the Boston media a day prior to the Northeastern series: BU Captain Grzelcyk would be available for that weekend, the news coming at least a week ahead of its expected delivery. "I talked to the doctors, the training staff and coach, I felt ready to go so they gave me the green light," said the man known as Gryz, the obvious key to BU's chances to be a title contender yet again. "When you're adding arguably the best defenseman in the country to your lineup, it's going to make an impact," said Quinn.
Terrier Lynchpin Matt Grzelcyk
Gryz was impossible to contain against Northeastern this past weekend, scoring in both games, running a crisp power play, and beating the forecheck with his legs and his smarts. Dave Starman, the top college hockey analyst in American TV, was scouting the Terriers Saturday. "He brings poise, he brings confidence, and much like (Kevin) Shattenkirk, he can be a one-man breakout," said Starman. "Remember in the old days, when you put a bunch of 6'4" cementheads on the ice, everybody felt bigger? In this day and age guys like Grzelcyk make you feel bigger. They make you feel faster, they make more feel more confident."

Gryz provided vital tonic to the Terriers in their weekend sweep of the cross town Huskies, wristing home BU's first goal in his debut Friday, and then setting up Oksanen for the game-winning goal with a beautiful cross ice feed in the third. The big Finn is in top form now, having scored game winning goals in consecutive games against Merrimack and Northeastern on Friday. But it was the opening minutes of Saturday's game in which Grzelcyk answered any lingering questions about the status of his jets. With trusted centerman Danny O'Regan leading a charge through center ice while a man up, Gryz spotted an open lane down the left wing and stomped his foot on the gas. "Our power play rush was really good," said Quinn. "We attacked with speed, and Grizzy's got that world class skating ability." Grzleck streaked down the wing, got a pass at full speed, and fired in the opening goal without breaking stride. It was college hockey's answer to the beautiful game played at fever pitch, the high speed play remaining onside only because of the trust between passer and receiver. "Danny's a really smart player, and we read off each other so well," said Gryz of O'Regan. "I kinda had an idea that he was gonna throw it at me and he made a great pass. I saw a little room short side and I went there." This was the signature moment in what was arguably the best period in Quinn's coaching career at BU: the Terriers held Northeastern shotless for the first 16 minutes, finishing with an 18-2 shot advantage for the opening stanza. The final score was 4-1 and Quinn had but one solitary complaint after their four-point weekend. "It's ridiculous that we gave up a short-handed goal with a minute to go. It cost Connor the shutout, that's really unfortunate."

A single blemish in their last game before BU's monster mid-term exam: a home-and-home rematch with the reigning NCAA champs, #1 ranked Providence College. This is the team that crushed their dreams in excruciating fashion last April, staging a third period comeback that won't be forgotten this lifetime. Would there be any challenge motivating the Terriers for this revenge match? "Absolutely not," said the captain. "We try to put it past us, but it was the national championship game. They got off to a great start this season, so we have every reason to feel motivated to go into their building Friday night. We've really grown the past few games; I think losing to UConn was an eye opener."

We asked Starman for an honest assessment: Can BU compete for national glory this year? "They are the fastest team I've seen so far, I think they're really skilled," said Starman. "The question is, do they get the same thing in goal as they did last year?" Quinn appears to have put his faith in goaltender LaCouvee, keeping him in Friday's game despite coughing up four goals in the second period. "I felt like he just keeps getting better," he said Saturday, answering the question as to why he gave LaCouvee the game 2 start versus Northeastern. "He had two great third periods, against Denver and Northeastern last night. I just felt like he earned it."

We caught up with Lacouvee after his stellar performance Saturday, confidently holding court with the BU student media, his save percentage inching up towards respectability. "We were kind of struggling a bit at the beginning there, and it's nice to string together a couple of wins, get the guys rolling and have some confidence. We got a big weekend coming up, so its nice to keep that streak alive."

A big weekend for sure, starting Friday night in Providence. This is the game hockey fans have circled on their calendars since the schedule came out, BU at PC, a rematch of the most dramatic hockey title bout in recent memory. Does Quinn's revived squad have the maturity to compete with the champs playing at home under their own championship banner? Will LaCouvee wilt or thrive under the hot lights? For fans who can't wedge their way into Schneider Arena Friday night, the game will air nationally at 6 pm Eastern time on American Sports Network (Ch 628 on DIRECTV). This, my hockey friends, is the epitome of appointment viewing.

2 comments:

  1. Good, thoughtful piece, tee raps. One correction, LaCouvee gave up five goals, not seven on the road against UConn. Let's not forget the 18 co-conspirators who played terribly that night in front of him. LaCouvee has begun to demonstrate the poise and economy of movement a goalie needs, puck some sharp puckhandling skills.

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    1. duly noted and corrected fine sir, and a genuine thank you for reading. I'm with both you and coach Quinn, LaCouvee is the one.

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