BOSTON — They were like the contender for the heavyweight title that didn’t know the reigning champ was supposed to be unbeatable. Every time the champ landed a haymaker, the bright-eyed contender fired back with one of his own.
Didn’t he know he was supposed to go down and stay down?
The unbeatable heavyweight champion was, of course, Boston College. The Eagles had won two of the last three NCAA titles. They’d played in four of the last five national championship games.
They’d opened the season as the nation’s consensus No. 1 team. They’d taken the regular season title with a 20-6-1 record within Hockey East, the first team to record that many league wins in 17 years.
An unbeatable heavyweight champ.
In the other corner, playing the role of the bright-eyed, unaccountably confident contender, was Merrimack. The year before Mark Dennehy arrived as coach, the Warriors hit rock bottom as a program, recording a brutal 1-21-1 league record.
The turnaround was anything but overnight. Records of 3-19-5, 3-22-2, 6-18-3, and 5-19-3 left most considering the Warriors to be little more than punching bags for champs like BC and other serious title contenders.
But Dennehy and his staff were taking the steps needed to fashion a winning mind-set, the mind-set of a contender that expects to win no matter the opponent.
“We went after players from winning programs,” he said. “You can change the players and you can change the coaches, but until you change the culture of a program you’re not going to have that type of success.
“So we went after a lot of guys who’ve played in big games and had success so they’re not fazed by being in the bright lights. They also know what it takes day-in and day-out to compete at this level.”
The Warriors broke through last year, finally making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. But there wasn’t a single senior who could describe what a Hockey East playoff game was even like. They took Boston University to a third game in the quarterfinals, but could extend their season no further.
Magic began happening this season, however. The former punching bag kept taking on all comers and leaving the other guys seeing stars. Merrimack set school record after school record.
The bright-eyed contender was taking himself seriously.
History was for history majors. Winning was for winners.
And the Warriors were winners.
Doubters assumed that come playoff time, Merrimack would fold. The Warriors faced a hot, playoff-tested team in Maine in the opening round. And swept the Black Bears.
OK, the doubters said, the Warriors would wilt under the bright lights of the TD Garden. The only other time they’d gotten there was way back in 1998 as an improbable eighth seed. They’d have to knock off New Hampshire, which had fought tooth and nail with BC for the regular season crown.
Nice run, the doubters said, but the party’s over.
Not for Merrimack. The Warriors won, 4-1.
So the bright-eyed contender that just wouldn’t go away took on the champs. And wouldn’t you know, the champs couldn’t put them away.
BC scored at 9:15 of the first. Just 26 seconds later, Ryan Flanigan finished off a two-on-one to tie it up.
Haymaker for haymaker.
The Eagles retook the lead; Mike Collins tied it in the closing minute of the period.
Haymaker for haymaker.
BC star Cam Atkinson scored his 29th goal of the season 9:41 into the third. Surely this would be the mortal wound. Not so fast. Flanigan retaliated yet again.
Haymaker for haymaker.
“That’s something that’s been the main characteristic for our team all year,” Merrimack captain Adam Ross said. “We’re a pretty resilient group, and we’re confident as well. We don’t let one goal get us down, ever.
“We know we have a good enough team that as long as we play hard and play our game, we’re going to get that goal back. Tonight was no different. We didn’t give up. We just kept going until the end of the game, and fortunately we were able to capitalize on some plays there.
“It’s been this way all year. We’re confident in our abilities.”
In the end, Atkinson got the winner and Brian Dumoulin added a late insurance goal.
The seemingly unbeatable champ won the fight. The bright-eyed contender took the loss. But the outcome turned out to have been very much in question.
BC coach Jerry York wasn’t sure he’d seen the last of the contender.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Merrimack in St. Paul,” he said, referring to the location of this year’s Frozen Four. “They’re that good.”
The contender had earned respect. But the contender had really been hoping for the title.
“I thought we did almost everything we needed to do except win,” Dennehy said.
“I’m very proud of our team. It’s a very resilient crew. We kept coming back. But you have to play even better to knock off the champion.”