BOSTON — It’s cliché in hockey playoffs to say that experience is what matters, but when it comes to the Boston College Eagles, that’s a cliché that continues to be proven worlds over.
Saturday night, experience was essentially the difference maker, as the Eagles, who have won two of the of the last three national championships, scored twice late in the third period to break a 3-3 tie and defeat Merrimack, 5-3, to capture its record 10th Hockey East title.
The Warriors, playing in their first-ever Hockey East championship game, continued to battle back against BC but were never able to grab a lead. When BC’s Cam Atkinson, the tournament MVP, scored his second goal of the game on a rocket shot with 5:11 remaining, BC seized the control it needed. Brian Dumoulin added an insurance tally on the power play with 1:36 remaining to allow the BC faithful in the crowd of 14,571 at the TD garden to celebrate yet another title.
“We’ve been here before and had the chance to enjoy some success,” said BC coach Jerry York of his team that has won three Beanpot titles, three Hockey East championships and will be going after their third national championship — all in the span of four seasons. “That’s something that’s hard to practice at 2 o’clock in the afternoon at your rinks.”
For Merrimack, which has enjoyed a record season in a number of different ways, the loss on Saturday stings, but coach Mark Dennehy was pleased with his team’s effort in their first appearance on such a big stage.
“I thought we did everything we needed to do except win,” said Dennehy, whose team will be making just their second NCAA tournament appearance next weekend. “I’m proud of the team. They’re a resilient crew that kept coming back.”
The fact that Merrimack had to continually come back was one of their biggest challenges. The Warriors, a team that rarely lost when getting ahead this season, never had the lead. They had a glowing chance early in the third period when the game was tied at two, pinning the Eagles in their defensive zone. That’s when Eagles goaltender John Muse (36 saves) was at his best.
“We would’ve liked to have had the lead and put some pressure on our opponent,” said Dennehy. “It may have had an effect on the game, but [playing catch up] didn’t have an effect on our players.”
The teams traded a pair of goals in a spirited opening period in which Merrimack held a 15-11 advantage in shots.
The Eagles struck first when Pat Mullane capitalized on a Warriors turnover and walked in alone on Merrimack netminder Joe Cannata (30 saves). He fanned on the shot, but the puck trickled off his stick and between Cannata’s legs at 9:15 for the 1-0 lead.
Merrimack answered though, just 26 seconds later. Ryan Flanigan, one of the Warriors best goal scorers in the postseason, walked in on a two-on-one and fired a high shot glove side on Muse.
At 11:03, the Eagles retook the lead when Brian Gibbons poked home a juicy rebound from an Atkinson shot.
As the period expired, Merrimack answered on the power play. Mike Collins made a perfect redirection of Joe Cucci’s shot-pass with 24.1 seconds remaining to knot the game, 2-2, after one.
Neither team got on the board in the second, though Boston College missed a golden opportunity when penalties to Merrimack’s Carter Madsen and Kyle Bigos gave the Eagles a 40-second five-on-three advantage.
BC had a number of decent looks, including a one-timer from the right dot by Atkinson, but Cannata looked strong throughout, allowing the Warriors to escape unscathed.
In the third, the Warriors opened on the power play and did a great job of controlling the play, but BC withstood the test and at 9:41 regained the lead. Joe Whitney made a nifty move in the neutral zone and walked in alone on Cannata. After the initial save, Atkinson swooped in and buried the rebound on the backhand.
Merrimack though, answered yet again. Flanigan scored his second goal of the game and fifth of the playoffs, banking the rebound of his own shot off of Muse at 13:32.
From there though, BC’s postseason experience carried them, with Atkinson and Dumoulin finding the net, and allowed the team yet another skate around the Garden ice with the Lamoriello Trophy.
Unlike the last two Hockey East title games, where the runner-up’s future depended on winning, both BC and Merrimack are easily safe in the NCAA tournament field.
Merrimack (25-9-4) has wrapped up a second seed in the tournament and will find out its fate on where and whom it will play on Sunday morning.
The Eagles (30-7-1) will have to wait for the NCAA tournament committee to sort out an interesting dilemma. New Hampshire, host of the Northeast regional in Manchester, N.H., fell to 13th in the final PairWise on Saturday. BC has locked up a number one seed, but can’t play New Hampshire in the opening round according to the NCAA’s procedures. With Yale, the number one overall seed, hosting the East Regional in Bridgeport, it appears as if the Eagles will be headed to either the Green Bay or St. Louis regionals. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on York.
“Where are we going to go?” quipped York after the game, well aware that unless the committee goes against common practice, his Eagles will be on a plane midweek. “That’s the one problem we have. The host school as the fourth seed pushes a number one seed out west. That’s hard for us and our fans.”
They’ll find out their official fate on Sunday morning when the NCAA announces its seeding. Until then though, York and his team can enjoy yet another big game win, something that has come to be business as usual for this experienced team.
Boston College postgame interviews
Merrimack postgame interviews