BOSTON — When the Northeastern Huskies began this season 1-7-2, far too many began to write off this team, only to see it rebound down the stretch and win a first-round road playoff series for the first time since 1991.
So when Northeastern fell behind 5-2 late in Friday’s Hockey East semifinal against the No. 1-seeded Boston College Eagles, you almost had to believe this dog still had fight left.
Unfortunately for Cinderella, the carriage turned into a pumpkin, and the Huskies, after a valiant rally, fell a goal short as the Eagles advanced to the Hockey East final for the sixth time in seven seasons with a 5-4 victory.
“When we started off [the season 1-7-2], there wasn’t panic in the dressing room,” said Northeastern assistant captain Wade MacLeod. “Tonight, too, [BC] got that fifth goal and we looked at the clock and realized there’s 10 minutes left. There’s enough time to skate.”
BC’s Pat Mullane gave the Eagles a three-goal cushion with 11:38 remaining in the game when he lifted a puck over Northeastern goaltender Clay Witt (five saves), who replaced starter Chris Rawlings (23 saves) to start the third in a move Huskies coach Greg Cronin deemed trying to give his team a different outlook to start the third.
The Eagles, though, got into late penalty trouble, allowing Garrett Vermeersch to score on a slap shot with 3:26 remaining and MacLeod to bury a puck at the left post with 63 seconds remaining. Suddenly, with the BC lead cut to one, Northeastern had one last breath of life. That breath was snuffed out, though, when BC netminder John Muse (33 saves) made the save of the game, stopping Steve Silva with 30 ticks left.
“Brian Gibbons made a great block and the puck kind of just stopped there,” Muse said of his final save. “Silva got a pretty good whack at it and luckily I just stood up and it hit me in the shoulder.”
While Northeastern seemingly ran out of time on Friday, Cronin, who said last weekend’s dramatic win over Boston University may have taken a lot out of his team, felt it was his team’s slow start over the first two periods that hurt it the most.
“I don’t even think we were a goal short,” said Cronin. “We were a period short in terms of our energy and aggressiveness.”
Despite Cronin’s displeasure with his team’s early play, it was his Huskies that grabbed the early lead. Tyler McNeely got two shots on Muse in close, where the senior netminder made both saves only to have the second rebound hit Joe Whitney in the leg and bounce into the net at 13:48 of the first.
BC answered less than three minutes later. Brian Gibbons fired a shot from the right faceoff dot that slid right under Rawlings, a early sign of the difficult night the junior would have in net.
In the second, the BC power play got going as the Eagles struck three times, twice with the man advantage. Kevin Hayes one-timed a pass from his brother Jimmy, at 6:56 to give BC its first lead.
After MacLeod scored his first of two goals 25 seconds later, BC regained the lead on a highlight-reel goal by Stephen Whitney. Just minutes after Whitney came out of the penalty box after taking back-to-back penalties, he atoned for his sins by scoring on a backhanded shot from his knees that bounced off the crossbar and in to give the Eagles a 3-2 lead at 13:14.
“I’d like to see that goal again,” said BC coach Jerry York. “I’ve only seen it on the Jumbotron. That was a special, special goal.”
It looked like Northeastern might escape the frame down just one, but Tommy Cross’ shot on the power play deflected off a Northeastern defender and into the top corner of the net with 18.2 seconds remaining, giving the Eagles the two-goal cushion and spelling the end of the night for Rawlings.
That set up the Eagles to take what seemed like an insurmountable lead into the third and Northeastern to post the spirited rally that came up a whisker short.
While BC (29-7-1) will advance to its 15th Hockey East championship game in search for its record 10th title, an impressive late-season run Northeastern (14-16-8) comes to an end two games short of an NCAA bid.
“I really was hoping we’d get to the tournament,” said Cronin. “I thought if we got to the NCAA tournament we could’ve done some damage. Our team had been through so much adversity. There was a lot of believability with that group.”