CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — For nearly two full periods Friday night, it appeared that the playoff coma that knocked Boston College out of the Hockey East playoffs last year — falling two games to one to eighth-seeded Boston University — had simply carried over nearly a year later.
Then senior Dave Spina made his presence felt.
Trailing 2-0 to eighth-seeded Massachusetts, Spina used every inch of his 5-foot-11 frame to level Minuteman rookie Mike Kostka behind the Eagles net with less than two minutes remaining in the second.
With no other Minuteman in sight, Spina found Patrick Eaves with room at the left half-boards, allowing Eaves to cut to the net and fire home a shot to get the Eagles on the board heading into the locker room.
The ultimate turning point, BC scored early in the third and anxiously watched as Stephen Gionta scored on a breakaway at 10:32 of overtime to give BC the 3-2 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three quarterfinal series. Game 2 is slated for Saturday.
“I really liked our resolve and the way we stayed in it,” said BC coach Jerry York, whose top-seeded Eagles are one step closer to their first Hockey East tournament championship since 2001.
The Spina hit and the Eaves goal turned around a game that for nearly 40 minutes played into the hands of the Minutemen. UMass clogged up the neutral zone, limited BC’s shots to the perimeter, and took advantage of lapses by the Eagles defense, and thanks to second-period goals by Obi Aduba and P.J. Fenton, grabbed the two-goal lead.
Truth be told, the BC deficit could have been worse as UMass misfired on two or three quality opportunities in the first two periods. But BC’s ability to stay in the game and eventually shift the momentum paid off in the end.
Once BC was able to claw within a goal, in fact, it outshot UMass, 23-9, the remainder of the way, including a 17-6 advantage in the third period.
“We knew this game was going to be a battle,” said UMass coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon. “We wanted to reduce things to the lowest common denominator and with a one-goal game [entering the third] that’s what we did.”
Still, it didn’t take long for BC to draw even in the final period. Brian Boyle, who has been on an offensive tear, scored at 2:52 of the third, blasting a shot from the right faceoff dot that hit UMass goalie Gabe Winer (39 saves) in the chest, bounced over his head and into the net.
From there it was mostly all BC, with a beleaguered Minuteman team showing fatigue throughout much of the third period and overtime.
“When you have fatigue involved, you try to overhandle the puck a little and do things that you don’t want to do but your mind is tired as well,” said Cahoon. “In the overtime I thought we recovered a little bit, which is why it’s so difficult to see [the game] end the way it did.”
UMass did have one chance in OT to write a favorable ending. Peter Travato skated two-on-one with John Toffey. Instead of looking for the pass, Travato chose to shoot, only to see BC netminder Matti Kaltiainen with most of the net covered, forcing Travato to bury a shot in the goalie’s midsection with no rebound.
Minutes later, with UMass continuing to press, a Peter Harrold clearing attempt bounced off a stanchion and over a UMass defender’s stick, giving Gionta a clean path to the net from center ice. After faking a move to the backhand, Gionta switched to his forehand and fired a shot over the left shoulder of Winer and into the net, sending the sparse BC crowd of 2,105 home happy.
“An OT goal in the first playoff game [this year], it’s definitely the highlight of my career,” said Gionta.
If history has much to say, it’s likely that BC will be moving toward the Hockey East final four. Never in the 21-year history of Hockey East has a number-one seed won the first game and lost the series. That, along with Friday night’s game, is something Cahoon and the Minutemen don’t want to think about.
“This game has to be taken out of our heads right away,” said Cahoon, whose Minutemen have advanced past the quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons. “You don’t look back in the playoffs.”
York and the Eagles also are aware that what was a fortunate win on Friday could easily turn the other way Saturday.
“I don’t care what their record is, that’s a good eighth-place team,” York said of UMass. “The book’s not finished. It’s hard to end a team’s season and that’s what we’re trying to do [Saturday] night.”