CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — The Boston College Eagles got one step closer towards a third Hockey East championship in four seasons — but it certainly wasn’t easy.
After winning game one of their quarterfinal series against Merrimack, 1-0, the Eagles found themselves deadlocked 1-1 through two periods Saturday before rookie Tony Voce scored his second game-winning goal in as many nights.
Hobey Baker hopeful Brian Gionta then added two goals in 30 seconds late in the game, as BC went on to a 5-1 decision, advancing to the Hockey East final four next weekend at the FleetCenter.
Voce’s game-winner was almost identical to his goal on Friday — a fluke. Friday, Voce picked up a puck that deflected off a Merrimack defender before scoring. Saturday, it was referee Jeff Bunyon who blocked a Merrimack clearing pass, knocking the puck right onto Voce’s stick for him to bury the game-winner.
“You need luck to win in the playoffs,” said Voce, joking about his streak of bounces before giving credit to the club’s trainer.
“Our trainer actually rubs my stick before the game for luck,” Voce said. “He started at BU this year and I scored two goals there. He rubbed it last night and he actually rubbed it before the third period tonight.”
Eagles coach Jerry York agrees that the Eagles maybe had a little St. Patrick’s Day luck a week early.
“You see it go against us and you see it go for us,” said York. “The big thing is you try to be consistent for 60 minutes. You just can’t get all out of whack when it goes the other way.
“[Luck] does have to be a big part along the way, especially in the playoffs.”
Merrimack coach Chris Serino, obviously disappointed with his season’s finale in the quarterfinals, recognized not only that BC had a bit of fortune on its side, but also that Merrimack didn’t.
“We didn’t have one bounce of the puck the whole weekend,” said Serino. “In order for us to beat this team we knew we’d have to play well and get a few bounces. We didn’t get any.”
Regardless of the role that luck played for the Eagles, it was skill that finished the game, with Gionta, playing in his final game in Conte Forum, gave BC all the insurance it needed.
With 2:37 remaining, Gionta deflected Ben Eaves’ shot from the left faceoff dot through the legs of Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter (43 saves). And 30 seconds later, he electrified the BC crowd with a perfectly placed slapshot while on a partial breakaway.
The 5-1 final, capped by an A.J. Walker tally with 1.3 seconds left, wasn’t indicative of the tight game and series.
“The one-eight matchup obviously isn’t what is looks like on paper,” said Gionta, referencing the top-seeded Eagles being pressed by Merrimack, the tournament’s eight seed. “When you see a league [like Hockey East] that is so even top to bottom, any game is going to be tough.
“Merrimack played great and the gave us a heck of a run and we had to play at the top of our game get through. … But [tight games] now get you prepared for later games. Every game from here on out is going to be a tough game.”
Saturday’s first period seemingly produced more scoring chances than the entire series opener a night earlier. BC carried the play, outshooting Merrimack, 16-9, and got on the board thanks to a magnificent individual effort by senior Mike Lephart.
After gathering a clearing pass in the neutral zone, Lephart stepped around Merrimack’s John Pyliotis, who had difficulty deciding whether to try for the puck himself or wait for Lephart to come to him. Once past Pyliotis, Lephart had only Exter to beat, and did with a nifty move around the goaltender, stuffing the puck into the net as he tripped and flew through the air, a la Bobby Orr, over Exter’s stick.
The second period proved one of the best of the two nights, with back-and-forth action throughout. The Eagles looked to have extended the lead to 2-0 just 34 seconds in, but referee Jeff Bunyon ruled no goal, saying that the net was dislodged by Gionta before the puck entered.
Merrimack took advantage of the break, finally breaking BC goaltender Scott Clemmensen’s (25 saves) hex at 4:46. Defenseman Tony Johnson made a perfect read on a clearing pass by Eagles rookie Brett Peterson, keeping it in at the blue line. Johnson fed the puck down to Nick Parillo in the slot, who stood alone, wheeled towards the net and beat Clemmensen inside the right post to even the game. That, though, would be the Warriors’ only tally of the series.
Plenty of chances followed, forcing both goaltenders, and the posts, to keep the game even. Most notable of the saves was Exter’s on Gionta, who was left alone in the slot. After falling to his right side, Exter flashed his glove as Gionta shot, robbing the Eagles’ captain, whose stick was already raised in celebration.
With the game knotted through two periods, a 20-minute game was left to decide the eventual series. After Voce’s tally at 6:11, Serino thought that his club still had plenty of fight.
“I thought that we could still bounce back and I thought we were playing well,” said Serino. “But we had a complete meltdown in the last two minutes.”
With the victory for the Eagles, they advance to the Hockey East final four for the fourth straight year and the 11th time in the 17-year history of the tournament. BC has captured the title four times (1987, 1990, 1998, and 1999) and will look to become the second five-time winner (along with BU).
BC will play either UMass-Lowell, a 2-1 winner over UNH on Saturday to capture that series, or Boston University. The Terriers evened their series with Providence Saturday night, and a win in game three would guarantee a matchup with the Eagles in the semifinals.