A Bitter Building Block

The drama grew more intense with the passing of each additional minute in overtime. So much pressure rested on the shoulders of the young Boston College goaltender. Then came the sharp-angle shot that somehow eluded him and it was time to say with crushing sadness, “Wait till next year.”

The goalie?

Freshman Scott Clemmensen. April 4, 1998. The national championship game against Michigan.

Three years later Clemmensen would backstop the Eagles to an NCAA title, but that loss as a freshman could not have been much more cruel.

Fast forward to March 29, 2003, and you get BC sophomore Matti Kaltiainen in the same shoes, ones you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. There’s no place you can go if you’re a goaltender who gives up an odd-looking goal to guillotine the season.

Filling the Josh Langfield role as the villain scorer was Cornell’s Matt McRae.

“The goaltender was cheating far side,” said McRae. “He had stopped me with 11 seconds left in the first overtime shooting the other side, so I decided it was time to change it up a bit.”

Kaltiainen had entered his first NCAA tournament as the biggest question mark in the BC lineup. The Eagles’ last game had been a 6-5 loss in double overtime in the Hockey East semifinals to archrival Boston University. Kaltiainen had played poorly, allowing a soft goal in the opening minute, after which he fought the puck the rest of the night.

In the resulting 15-day layoff, he watched tapes and worked with goaltender coach Jim Logue on some technical problems, especially the need to come out of his net more, but the question still remained: if that was how he handled his first Hockey East playoff game at the FleetCenter, how would he handle the NCAAs?

As it turned out, well enough to allow only two goals in over 141 minutes of East Regional action. Good enough to earn a berth on the all-tournament team over Cornell’s David LeNeveu, the Hobey Baker finalist who is poised to break Ken Dryden’s all-time NCAA record for goals against average. Good enough to shut out Ohio State and then stymie Cornell after a first-period goal, stopping all 25 shots in the second and third periods as well as the first overtime session.

But because of McRae’s shot, not good enough to emerge with the win that would send Boston College to the Frozen Four.

“About those games — how I played — I feel pretty good about that,” said Kaltiainen after the loss. “Of course, those two goals — I could stop them both so I still feel a little bad about that.”

BC coach Jerry York, who has overseen goaltenders for three decades as a head coach, assessed Kaltiainen following the bitter defeat.

“I think he’s a goalie that’s maturing,” said York. “He’s getting better. As with all goaltenders, he has his ups and downs. In the Hockey East semifinal game with BU he didn’t play well, but I’m sure Martin Brodeur has some games that he’s not playing very well. Recently in a series with the Bruins, he was taken out of the game.

“I think [Matti] is mature and he’s going to be a very fine goaltender for us. Is he there yet? I’m not quite sure, but these two [regional] games will be great for his confidence.”

If captain Ben Eaves is any indication, Kaltiainen’s teammates believe in him.

“I think he’s a tremendous goalie,” said Eaves. “He felt really bad about the BU game a couple weeks ago and he just made up his mind that he was going to stop the puck. You could just see in practice that he had something he wanted to prove. He was just unbelievable for us.”

Nonetheless, it’s now time to wait until next year. Boston College looks like it will be one of the most talented teams in the nation after graduating only four role players.

As a result, the bitter loss Kaltiainen had to accept on this day may be a stepping stone to a fate similar to Clemmensen’s, a future national championship. It’s just difficult to see it that way now.

“I’m kind of tired of saying after a last game [of the season] ‘Next year we’ll do better,’ because we didn’t do it this year,” said Kaltiainen. “It’s kind of hard to say now.”