BOSTON — Not all that long ago, Boston University coach Jack Parker basically wrote off a first-place finish for his Terriers. Archrival Boston College had a solid lead, and it clearly would have required an unlikely alignment of the planets for BU to emerge on top.
Tonight the improbable dream came true. With a loss to New Hampshire, BC slipped into a second-place tie with Maine and a No. 3 seed, while BU clinched its first regular-season Hockey East championship since 2000, when Rick DiPietro manned the goal, with its second successive 5-3 win over the tenacious Huskies of Northeastern in front of a crowd of 5,769 at Agganis Arena.
Peter MacArthur got the game-winning goal at 12:03 of the third period and added a pair of assists for the champs. On senior night, co-captain Brad Zancanaro contributed two assists as well, while senior linemates John LaLiberte and co-captain David Van der Gulik notched a goal apiece. Rob Rassey had a goal and an assist for Northeastern.
It was the second night in a row that the stubborn Huskies gave the Terriers all that they could handle. As was the case on Friday night, Northeastern tied BU, 3-3, in the final frame.
“The thing that jumped out me most this weekend was how hard Northeastern played against us-what a great effort they made in both games,” Parker said. “We had to really dig deep in the third period to win both games. I think that’s a real credit to their players-especially to their seniors-and absolutely to their whole coaching staff, getting them to play as hard as they could.
“[It's also] a credit to us that we hung in there and didn’t gag it a little bit. I thought we played hard-played our best hockey on both nights in the third period, which is great. And I thought we played sharp in a lot of areas, [but] I thought we played a better game last night than we did tonight.”
At the end of a challenging first season as Northeastern coach, Greg Cronin seemed drained afterwards.
“I thought the first period we were really flat,” Cronin said. “Of course they got three power plays right away, and they got some momentum. I thought as the game went on, we actually got better. I really felt good about it when it was 3-3. The penalty we took was about as dumb as it gets-I believe with 12 minutes to go-just a dumb penalty, right in front of the referee.
“We killed that one off, and quite frankly I thought the next call was not a very good call. His explanation was a hit from behind. The puck goes up the wall and our guy is going down to play the puck, and they got tangled up. He didn’t hit him; he kind of roped him up a bit. I didn’t understand that one.”
BU had a few chances in the early going but ironically lost momentum during its first power play. Bryan Esner had a nice shorthanded breakout, culminating in a backhanded shot at the four-minute mark. Then, off an offensive-zone faceoff at 6:32, Northeastern startled BU with the game’s first goal. Freshman Andrew Linard took an innocent-looking shot from the left point, but it found its way through traffic and beat goaltender John Curry. It was Linard’s first collegiate goal.
BU tied it just over two minutes later when Tom Morrow set up a John Laliberte slapper at the center point, beating screened goaltender Jake Thaler, who played his second game in two nights after not making an appearance all season.
The Terriers struck again just 33 seconds later. On another power play, MacArthur took a slapshot that Thaler stopped, only to have Bryan Ewing bat the midair rebound into the net.
It appeared that a romp might be on, but NU actually tied it up on a power-play goal with 44.3 seconds left in the period. Rob Rassey picked up a rebound and pulled off a nifty wraparound to beat Curry.
The second period lacked scoring chances and featured generally tepid play until BU took the lead again at 15:32. Kenny Roche got the puck on the left-wing boards and found himself unmarked. He drove to the net and buried a shot.
Northeastern tied it again almost six minutes into the final period. Oddly enough, a second Husky defenseman picked up his first collegiate goal. Louis Liotti ended up near the net as Steve Birnstill shot, and Liotti tussled with Brian McGuirk for the rebound. Both players went down, but Liotti swept in the puck from his knees for a quirky goal and another deadlock.
“I thought Liotti’s goal was a terrific goal,” Cronin said. “To me it was a reflection of our team-just a second effort. He was down on his knees, and he just golfed it in the net.”
BU got the game-winner on the aforementioned penalty that Cronin vocally disputed. The coach showed restraint in his comments, especially in comparison to his renowned “sniffing glue” comment during the season’s first weekend.
“I didn’t want to talk last night because I tossed a grenade out there in North Dakota about the refereeing, and I’m not going to do it again,” he added.
MacArthur’s slapper beat Thaler for the game-winner.
“Brandon Yip made a great play on the power play,” MacArthur said. “He squeezed the puck off when they tried to clear it out of the zone. He played through his check and found me in the middle.”
BU’s insurance goal was a greasy one: Thaler thought he had squeezed Kevin Schaeffer’s shot, but it trickled through him into the crease, where Van der Gulik skated behind him for the tap-in.
The Huskies continued to battle, absolutely taking it to the league champions less than two minutes after the soft goal. It should have been 5-4 if not for freshman Dennis McCauley missing a wide-open net on a rebound. The effort reflected impressively on the coaching staff and captain Chuck Tomes.
“Obviously, you want to go out on top,” Tomes said. “Coming into this weekend, we knew that this was going to be it for us, so we were hoping to win two games and have a good feeling ending it all. It didn’t work out, but I definitely think that this whole program is going to turn around.
“These coaches are great guys. They really care about the whole program, and they’re going to keep coaching until they kick us off and drain the ice. They’re here to win, they’re not here just to say ‘Good game’ and ‘Work hard.’ I definitely think in future years to come, the program is going to turn around.”
As the Huskies (3-24-7, 3-17-7 Hockey East) must wait till next year, No. 3 BU (21-9-4) sets its sights on being the No. 1 seed in the Hockey East quarterfinals, hosting Massachusetts in a best-of-three series starting Friday night.
“So we finish the season with a 16-2-2 run,” Parker said. “That might be the best run we’ve had since the 1978 season, when we only lost one game all year, and we get rewarded with the outright league championship. I thought we’d be sharing it with somebody-that we’d be lucky to be sharing it with somebody. And we get the No. 1 seed. That used to mean something in this league. It doesn’t mean much any more. We work hard for 30 games, and then we get UMass, a team that can beat anybody at any time.”
“I don’t think after Christmas when were 8-8-2 or something that we would’ve believed you if you said we’d be here at the end of the year,” Zancanaro said. “But we’ve worked real hard, and it’s been a good few months for us here. We really came together as a team, and it’s great to get a championship.”
“You work so hard every year, and it’s nice to be rewarded,” added Van der Gulik. “We’re finally getting some rewards. We won the Beanpot again, and we won an award tonight that we haven’t won since 2000, I think, so it’s special.”