BOSTON — Ten minutes into this exhibition game, it looked to have all the makings of a laugher for Boston University.
But the University of New Brunswick very nearly had the last laugh.
Territorially dominated for the better part of the game, the Varsity Red hung tough and tied it up on a Dustin Friesen power-play goal with 2:39 remaining, only to have Terrier freshman defenseman Eric Gryba net the game-winner 75 seconds later to give No. 4 BU a 3-2 win in front of 4,862 at Agganis Arena.
Senior Eric Thomassian led the way with a goal and an assist for the victors, while Brad Efthimiou assisted on both New Brunswick goals. Varsity Red goalies Michael Ouzas and Reg Bourcier were stalwarts in net, stopping 37 of 40 shots while splitting the game time.
“We certainly had a territorial advantage; we didn’t have much of a scoreboard advantage,” Terrier coach Jack Parker said. “I thought some guys played very, very well. It was a good effort moving the puck out of our zone; we forechecked very well. If you look at that shot chart, we dominated. We had the advantage in that they had to play last night, and we didn’t.”
New Brunswick coach Gardiner MacDougall raved about their first appearance at Agganis Arena and also looked at the game philosophically.
“We looked at as a challenge,” MacDougall said. “We’re probably the fourth or fifth-ranked team in Canada going against the third or fourth-ranked team in the US.
“We have to learn to play away from the puck. The transition game that Boston brings, the skill level and the puck protection, we certainly don’t see that on a regular basis in Canada. I thought our guys adjusted as the game went on.”
Parker acknowledged that it was perhaps a little too easy for the Terriers in the early going. The shots were 10-1 in the first nine minutes, and BU enjoyed several scoring chances. However, the Terriers only buried one. That came at 3:21 when Brian McGuirk hit a post and Thomassian managed to knock the rebound in while falling down.
“I was going two-on-one with Higgs, tried to feed him a pass across,” Thomassian said. “Bavo [assistant coach Mike Bavis] is always after me to stop at the net, and I just happened to stop at the net. McGuirk took a nice shot – I thought it went in – and it happened to kick off my skate. As I was falling, I got my stick on it. I guess those are the kind of goals that in order to have a good season you’ve got to put home, the scrappy ones.”
Other first impressions from the first two periods: Chris Higgins was the clear standout – seven shots and a plus-3 – among the forwards with several eyebrow-raising moves, and all of the freshmen looked very poised and solid. Curiously, the younger players outperformed their older counterparts in many instances.
“I thought the freshmen played very well. I thought [sophomore Matt] Gilroy played great,” Parker said. “I thought he was our best defenseman by far. I thought our younger defensemen played better than our older defensemen. I thought [forward Luke] Popko played very well for his first game, and I thought Chris Higgins had a terrific game. He was really in every way on top of his game.”
Both freshmen defensemen played as advertised, with Brian Strait displaying a nice combination of skating, passing, hitting, and making smart decisions, while Gryba uses his size effectively and also can move the puck. Popko was out on almost every penalty kill as expected and will be a key faceoff man as well. Zach Cohen hit his stride as the game went on with two shots in the third period.
The University of New Brunswick tied the game with a five-on-three goal against John Curry at 7:32 of the first period. Late in the first stanza, Brandon Yip, last year’s rookie of the year in Hockey East, scored the go-ahead goal after he and Thomassian took several whacks at a rebound near the crease.
It was all BU in the second period, everywhere except on the scoreboard. The Terriers outshots their northern visitors by a 12-1 margin, but didn’t have terrific chances and never scored. Karson Gillespie did little but fetch dumped-in pucks from behind his net for his 20 minutes between the pipes.
The third period turned out to be much more lively both ways. Freshman phenom Brett Bennett was perhaps the most tested of the three goalies but looked composed at all times, coming up with several nice power-play saves without any dramatics. At 9:00, freshmen Cohen and Popko almost sealed it with a give-and-go that resulted in Popko queuing it up for Cohen from behind the net, only to be thwarted by Bourcier.
Finally New Brunswick silenced the crowd when Friesen flipped in a high shot from 10 feet out on a power play in the last three minutes. But that just set the stage for Gryba, who got the puck at the right point and seized an opportunity.
“I just stepped around the guy who was coming out to block the shot,” Gryba said. “I saw the goalie was down and I just put it through someone’s legs, and it bounced in. It was a play of luck.”
Bourcier appeared to complain that someone had interfered with him but to no avail.
“We have a great young team,” BU captain Sean Sullivan said. “Eric [Gryba] and the rest of the freshmen played unbelievable today, just to step in and be as comfortable as they were. It’s a great feeling to know that those guys can step in play. But as a team, we have some things to work on before we get to RPI. Overall, I think we played solid. Goaltending went well, defense played very well, and the forwards had some trouble putting the puck in the net. But [New Brunswick] is a good team with good goalies.”
BU travels to Rensselaer for the Engineers’ home opener next weekend.