Boston College senior Barry Almeida remembers well sitting on the team bus on Saturday, Jan. 21.
“Worst bus ride home ever,” Almeida said. “It’s a long trip. It was quiet. There was not one word said, no movies, no nothing.”
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As the Eagles get ready to face Minnesota in the national semifinal on Thursday night, that memorable bus ride — memorable for all the wrong reasons — has been continuously marked as the turning point for BC’s season.
After that loss to Maine, BC was 6-9-1 in its last 16 games and had become what coach Jerry York called an “average” team.
“There are lots of average teams and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said York. “Of the 58 teams, probably 40 are average. That means they win one, lose one. They’re in the mix.
“But the next step is the elite college teams. We had to make a self-evaluation about what type of team we wanted to be. We could continue and win a couple, lose a couple. Or we could go after that elite status. If you go after that, then you have to bring a better work ethic, a better intensity to every day.
“Our kids didn’t want to be average.”
Knowing that there isn’t just a switch that can be flipped between average and elite, the Eagles needed to make that commitment both on and off the ice.
Since that lost weekend in Orono, though, BC has proven definitively that commitment has been made. The Eagles have run off 17 straight wins, the longest winning streak in York’s extremely successful career at the Heights.
And they’ve captured in spades something that York loves to talk about: trophies.
BC won the Beanpot, survived a grueling race to win the Hockey East regular season title, skated through the Hockey East tournament to capture the Lamoriello Trophy and shut out the competition — literally — to win the Northeast Regional crown.
Now the Eagles face their next test — and possibly one of the stiffest thus far — when they head to Tampa, Fla., to take on Minnesota.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be still playing,” Almeida said. “Everyone knows that we have a real good opponent ahead of us in Minnesota. We know we’ve got a challenge in front of us, but we’re preparing like every other game.”
That businesslike attitude of taking success one game at a time is common to hear in college sports. But for this Eagles team, one game at a time has meant one win at a time in a stretch that now spans nearly 10 weeks on the calendar.
A major part of BC’s move from average to elite has been defense. The first of BC’s 17 straight wins came against New Hampshire, 4-3. That was the last time that BC has allowed more than two goals in a game. Suddenly, a Boston College team that has always been known for its offensive prowess and talented forwards can possibly now be called the best defensive team in the country.
“One thing we stress is that guys who might be scoring all year might have to sacrifice a bit to benefit the team,” Almeida said. “Defense is huge now, especially in these [NCAA] games. Every team is good now. They can score goals. So the fewer you give up, you win the game.”
Of course, Boston College goaltender Parker Milner — whose own rise from a low point at midseason has been well documented — is a major part of defensive success.
“Our goalie is playing lights-out right now,” Almeida said. “It’s something special that hopefully he can keep up.”
But to earn the national title — it would the team’s fourth in 11 years if successful — the Eagles will have to look themselves in the mirror.
This time it isn’t about soul searching. The mirror in this case is the ice sheet where they will play a Minnesota team that BC believes is near identical.
“I want to say we have similar styles,” Almeida said when describing the Gophers.
“They mirror ourselves,” York said. “They’ve very close to what we have.”
Indeed, Minnesota has the quickness to compete with this Eagles team. York pointed to players like Nick Bjugstad (“certainly one of the top players in the country”) and Kyle Rau (“he’s had a phenomenal freshman year”) as the Gophers’ top weapons. But he also said that, similar to the Eagles, the difference-maker might be between the pipes.
“[Kent] Patterson has kind of been their glue all year. He gives them a lot of strength in goaltending,” said York.
For Almeida, Tampa represents the final chance to prove that this Eagles team is no longer average and, in doing so, earn one more trophy. He talks about how special it has been every time that the team gets to pose with those trophies. And he’d like the chance to do that one more time.
“It’s about memories. You just want to build memories here,” said Almeida. “There’s one last trophy and it’s right there. Two games left to be able to do that.”