BOSTON — If you listened to some people heading into championship weekend, Boston College was the one team that had no chance.
Boston University had lost only once since Jan. 6, posting a torrid 16-1-2 record in that stretch. Maine’s last loss was Feb. 4, going 8-0-2 since that point as well as 12-1-2 since Jan. 20. New Hampshire hadn’t merely survived a murderous closing schedule; it had excelled and was now on a 7-1-3 roll.
And then there was BC.
If a critic wanted to savage the Eagles, there was plenty of material. At one point in January, they had been the only Hockey East member on track to get a bid to the national tournament. They had seemingly locked up the regular-season title and with a 17-4-2 record looked like the one bulletproof team in the league.
Then the wheels came off. A disastrous 1-5-1 stretch to complete the regular season consigned them to third place and suddenly the Eagles were in danger of not even getting an invite to the NCAAs, let alone losing a high seed.
What was lost by many was the difficulty of BC’s schedule in that stretch. While 1-5-1 is still 1-5-1, four of the losses had come at the hands of the other three eventual semifinalists and the other to a very hot Massachusetts-Lowell team.
Not exactly chopped liver.
“We had a dip in February and early March, but we were playing the real top teams in that stretch,” BC coach Jerry York said. “We weren’t quite as effective in a lot of the areas as we had been during the rest of the season. But if you look at the full body of work, I was really pleased with the season.”
Still, the 1-5-1 stretch wasn’t going to disappear from the BC record and the opening game of the playoffs didn’t exactly extinguish doubts. With a minute left in regulation, Vermont led, 2-1, and Eagle-doubters and -bashers already had the word “collapse” on their lips, perhaps with the adjective “cataclysmic” thrown in for an extra kick.
As it turned out, however, rumors of the Eagles’ demise were greatly exaggerated. Chris Collins scored to tie the game, Peter Harrold put in the game-winner in overtime and one night later a Collins hat trick led BC to a convincing 6-2 win.
Important to the Eagles, without a doubt. But a two-game winning streak following a 1-5-1 stretch was chump change in the momentum department compared to the moneybags at BU, Maine and UNH. As a result, the “smart money” was on “anyone but BC.”
And for the opening period of the semifinal game with Maine, that thinking looked solid. The Black Bears, who had swept their three-game regular-season series with BC, dominated territorially, building a 16-7 shot advantage despite incurring the only two penalties.
Only the goaltending of Cory Schneider kept BC afloat. But Schneider’s heroics weren’t exactly front-page news for anyone who’d followed the Eagles this year. The sophomore had been a difference-maker night after night and he didn’t stop against Maine just because the stakes were much higher and the stage bigger.
“We relied on Cory Schneider to make some saves early that kept us in the game,” York said. “The puck was like a hot potato for us in the first 10 to 12 minutes. As the game went on, our nerves settled, but Cory really kept us in it at the beginning.”
BC scored twice in the second period and with Collins, the Hockey East Player of the Year, on the bench with a hip injury, the rest of the Eagles finished off a 4-1 win, with the margin fattened by two empty-net goals.
One down, one to go. That obstacle, however, was a big one. If the Eagles were going to repeat as Hockey East champions, they’d have to knock off their crosstown rivals at BU. In the semifinals, the Terriers had done nothing to sully the impressions made by their 16-1-2 record, shellacking UNH 9-2.
In the end, the Eagles took the title game into overtime, at which point they played their best hockey. They peppered BU goaltender John Curry for a 10-4 shot advantage.
“When we got to the overtime, they were all over us,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “We had trouble getting the puck to the red line and dumping it in. They had opportunities and time of possession in our zone and they were winning faceoffs. We were really back on our heels.”
The Terriers, however, counterattacked and at the 14:22 mark finally put a second puck past Schneider. So close, but yet so far.
Even so, the quality of the Eagles’ play gave every indication that they will be anything but one-and-done in the national tournament. The negative momentum with which they entered the Hockey East playoffs has been reversed for the NCAAs.
“We ended the season in a difficult period for our hockey team, but you’re not going to go through the year 38-0,” York said. “You’re going to have some ups and downs. Ours came toward the end of the year, but I thought we righted the ship and started playing a lot better. Of the last four games that we played, I think this was perhaps the best of the four.
“We’re disappointed. We wanted to bring the trophy back to BC. But when we wake up in the morning we’ll realize how well we played and our momentum will be very good going into [the NCAA tournament].”