PHILADELPHIA — With Boston College  trailing 3-2 early in the third period of its regional final against UMass-Lowell, Ryan Fitzgerald took a pass in the neutral zone and split two Lowell defenders before finishing with a nice forehand-backhand move at the front of the net.
It’s a play that Fitzgerald, the Bruins’ fourth-round pick this past summer, has always been able to make. The difference now is that he knows when to go for it and when it might be better to be conservative and either dump the puck in or pull up and wait for help.
“He came in here as a really skilled 1-on-1 player, had great moves, great hands,” said linemate and BC captain Patrick Brown. “But I think as the year has gone on, he’s developed his vision a lot. He’s learned that he can’t beat everyone 1-on-1. Sometimes he does, but sometimes he has to chip pucks in or make a read and decide whether it’s the right play to take that 1-on-1. He did a great job doing that against Lowell, had that great goal for us.”
Decision-making isn’t the only area in which Fitzgerald has improved during his freshman year at the Heights. It’s part of what has made him a better all-around player, but an even bigger part has been his defensive play. That’s a theme across college hockey, as most players come from leagues where defense isn’t emphasized as much or isn’t taught as well.
Fitzgerald is no different. He had the winning and scoring down pat. The North Reading native helped lead Malden Catholic to back-to-back Super 8 titles in 2011 and 2012. Then he went to the Valley Junior Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League and earned MVP honors in the USHL/NHL  Top Prospects Game.
The 5-foot-9 playmaker has always been a student of the game, too, having learned from his father, Tom (a 17-year NHLer who is now an assistant general manager for the Penguins ), and uncle, Scott (an assistant scouting director with the Bruins).
But when Fitzgerald arrived at BC in the fall, Jerry York  and the rest of the coaching staff identified his defensive play as an area they were going to help him improve. Fitzgerald was willing to listen and willing to learn, and as a result, he’s already made significant strides in just one season.
“He’s a much better player now, in all three zones, than he was when he came to our first practice in October,” York said. “We recruited a very good player. He was a very good player before he came. He’s always had the ability to score goals and create offense. Now I think he pays a little more attention to the defensive side of the game.”
Oh, and Fitzgerald has continued to score goals and create offense, too. His 12 goals this season are third among Hockey East freshmen, and his 28 points are fourth. Those numbers are often overlooked — even in college hockey circles — because of the ridiculous production BC has gotten from its top line, as Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold have 77, 63 and 52 points, respectively.
But that’s a once-in-a-generation line. Comparing anyone’s production to that isn’t fair. What is fair is comparing Fitzgerald to other second-line players. When it comes to scoring, the only other Hockey East team with a comparable second line is Notre Dame . And when it comes to the other teams here in Philadelphia for the Frozen Four, Fitzgerald, Brown and Austin Cangelosi are, at worst, on par with the second lines from Union, Minnesota and North Dakota.
While the top line is the biggest key to the team’s success, the Eagles have known all season that there would be games in which they needed other lines to step up. Because that has happened — led by Fitzgerald and company — York has been able to keep his dynamic top line together and not split them up to spread out the offense.
“You can have marquee players, and you need those players to be really good, but they have to have a supporting cast that does things also,” York said. “It’s not like basketball where you can start five players and play them the majority of the game. We’re using 18 players on a pretty regular basis.”
Fitzgerald stepped up two weekends ago against Lowell, and he knows his team is going to need him to play well again in Thursday’s national semifinal against Union (a team that includes Mike Vecchione, his former Malden Catholic linemate). If he does, he could find himself winning another championship on Saturday night.