WORCESTER, Mass. — After an opening day of the NCAA Ice Hockey tournament where top seeds were pressed to the brink, and in the case of top seed Denver saw its season come to the end, it’s no surprise that Boston College coach Jerry York was concerned that his Eagles could become yet another victim of an upset.
No. 4 seed Alaska just about obliged.
Boston College rookie Pat Mullane broke a 1-1 deadlock at 3:46 of the third period and goaltender John Muse withstood the onslaught of Alaska’s offense as the Eagles earned a 3-1 victory in the opening game of the NCAA Northeast Regional at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
Mullane finished off a perfectly-executed three-on-two rush by redirecting a deflected shot by fellow rookie Patch Alber over the shoulder of Nanooks goaltender Scott Greenham (29 saves).
Matt Price was the awarded an automatic empty-net goal with 11.3 seconds remaining when he was hooked down from behind on a breakaway. NCAA rules state that anytime there is an empty net and a player is fouled when there is an obvious and eminent goal coming, the referee can award an automatic goal.
When referee Brad Shepherd signaled goal, the BC faithful breathed a sigh of relief after an incredibly intense effort put forth by the Nanooks.
“Our team was in a terrific battle tonight,” said York. “We knew Alaska was good. This was their first tournament action and they played us so well. The game could’ve gone either way.”
The game-winning goal came after Alaska nearly took its first lead of the game on an odd-man rush. A shot wide by Alaska led to BC head-manning the puck. Steven Whitney dropped a pass to Alber at the right point, and Alber fired a shot towards the net. The puck deflected off the leg of Paul Carey then off the stick blade of Mullane.
“We always work on hitting our [defense] coming in late,” said Mullane. “It paid off tonight.”
The two teams opened the game with a balanced first period, but it was the Eagles that scored the frame’s only goal.
Short-handed, red-hot Matt Lombardi pulled the puck away from Nanooks defenseman Joe Sova at the left point and turned on the jets, exploding on a breakaway and burying a backhander between Greenham’s legs for a 1-0 lead at 8:54.
“That was the first short-handed goal we’ve given up all year,” said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson.
The Eagles had a glaring opportunity to extend the lead at 18:15 when Joe Whitney stared down an open net on a three-on-one, but the junior sniper fired high over the crossbar to keep the BC lead to one.
In the second, the Eagles stepped up the offensive intensity, but Greenham was stellar, stopping all 13 BC bids.
Late in the frame, when BC got in trouble with penalties, the Nanooks finally capitalized.
Alber was whistled for hooking at 14:29 and Brian Gibbons followed him to the box for hooking, as well, at 16:05, giving Alaska a brief five-on-three. Though they couldn’t score with the two-man advantage, before BC returned to full strength, Andy Taranto struck for his 18th goal of the season at 16:32.
The bid for Taranto was a satisfying ending to a frustrating shift. Three times he was wide open at the left post with the puck, but Muse robbed him with the right pad on the first two bids. The rookie raised his arms in almost disbelief when the equalizer finally went past Muse.
“It was a relief [to finally score],” said Taranto. “It was a great play by Dion [Knelsen] taking the puck to the net and the rebound came right out to me. I finally got one in.”
After BC took the lead early in the third, Alaska hemmed the Eagles in the zone late in the third looking for the equalizer. The Nanooks had plenty of bids, but ran into Muse (28 saves). Their best bid though, beat Muse, but Dustin Sather’s shot rang off the crossbar with 2:04 remaining.
BC played its best defense of the period late, keeping Alaska from getting Greenham to the bench until the final 40 seconds and when Price went off to the races with an empty net, not even a massive hook from the Nanooks defense could prevent the final outcome.
Alaska finishes the season at 18-12-9 and will hope to build on its success in earning its first NCAA bid.
BC advances to the regional final for the 11th time under York. BC has never lost the first game of the NCAA tournament under York.
“We’re awfully excited to be advancing,” said York. “This is a special time for coaches and players who chase trophies and this was our first step in the NCAAs.”