CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — The storyline was written for an upset at Boston College Thursday night.
Game 1 of the Hockey East quarterfinal series between the second-seeded Eagles and No. 7 seed Northeastern saw BC playing with a depleted defensive corps, their top center playing back on defense, and a first line that has been gangbusters for the past month and a half broken up for the first time in seemingly forever.
What seemed like disaster, though, for the Eagles turned into an opportunity to prove strength as BC was opportunistic offensively and stingy on defense, helping itself to a 3-0 win in the opening game of a best-of-three series against the Huskies.
On offense, the Eagles’ top line of Ben Smith, Nathan Gerbe and Brock Bradford combined for three goals and eight points, including a two-goal effort from Bradford, his third of the season.
On the flip side, the depleted defense limited Northeastern to just 25 shots as netminder Cory Schneider earned his fifth shutout of the season and 14th of his career, enough to pass Scott Clemmensen for the all-time Eagles record in shutouts.
“Cory was rock-solid in goal,” said BC head coach Jerry York, citing one of the three keys to Thursday’s win.
The other keys, according to York, were Boyle’s play on defense, and the Eagles’ ability to kill of a five-minute major penalty to Mike Brennan early in the second period was “the pivotal point in the game.
“We get a lot of energy from the penalty kill,” said York.
To add insult to injury, literally, Brennan was also assessed a game misconduct for his hit-from-behind major that seemingly spelled doom for BC. The defensive corps was already without Carl Sneep (ankle) and Anthony Aiello (hip), meaning after Brennan’s ejection the club was left with just three full-time defensemen manning the blueline.
That magnified Boyle’s presence and performance in the game as he proved qualified to play solid defense, protecting Schneider by limiting the Huskies’ chances.
“[Boyle's] done a great job on the penalty kill all year,” referring to the 6-foot-7 forward’s role as a defender on both the penalty kill and in four-on-four situations. “I’ve gotten used to having him back there so I’m not surprised [at how he played on Thursday].”
With BC students on spring break, a sparse 1,588 fans made Kelley Rink seem like a morgue in the opening period. The only energy seemed to be emanating from the visiting Huskies. Unfortunately for them, the frame’s lone goal went to the Eagles.
Off of a danger-zone turnover near the Northeastern offensive blueline, Gerbe took an outlet pass from Boyle and broke two-on-one with Brock Bradford. Freezing goaltender Brad Thiessen (26 saves) and a Northeastern defenseman, Gerbe fed the puck across for Bradford to bury his 13th goal of the season at 18:21.
Early in the second period came the game’s biggest momentum swing. After BC killed off Brennan’s major penalty, a Huskies infraction immediately after to Joe Vitale for holding put BC on the power play.
The Eagles wasted little time cashing in as Smith fired the rebound of a Brett Motherwell shot from the left point past a sprawled Thiessen to give BC a 2-0 cushion at 6:06 of the second.
“I have one rule that I thought was dead-on tonight,” said NU coach Greg Cronin. “If you have a five-minute power play and don’t score, you don’t win. We didn’t capitalize, they came out a minute later and they score on the power play and it’s two-zip.”
Northeastern would have its chances to draw close. A shorthanded break early in the third saw Jimmy Russo staring down a rebound of a Bryan Esner shot with a seemingly an open net. But when Brian O’Hanley slowed up Russo and Schneider got back into position, that chance was foiled.
Bradford, who hit two posts in the third period, buried the rebound of a Smith shot with 7:54 to play to signal lights out for the Huskies.
The victory pulls BC within a win of returning to the Hockey East final four at the TD Banknorth Garden next weekend and puts the Huskies on life support. Game 2 is slated for Friday night.
As for what Cronin’s team needs to change to get back into the series, the second-year coach isn’t sure.
“Call me tomorrow at about 11:30 a.m. after the [team] meeting will be over and I’ll have some answers,” he said.