Terriers, Sperry riding an escalator rather than a rollercoaster

To fully appreciate Boston University’s season, one must compare it to the previous one.

The results in 2011-12 looked like the teeth of some old-time hockey players — there were gaps everywhere. Much of that was a mess not of the Terriers’ making, because of injuries.

“We have been very lucky with those injuries this year,” said goaltender Kerrin Sperry. “We’ve had one or two girls out with a pulled this or pulled that, or a flu or something, but other than that, especially versus last year where we had [Marie-Philip] Poulin out for a long time and [Jenelle] Kohanchuck out for the whole year. It really helps for our team’s stability, especially when you have Poulin as a captain. You need that leadership figure, and we’re happy to have everyone healthy this year.”

The stability manifested in the standings as BU (27-5-3, 18-2-1 Hockey East) captured the regular season title, improving on a third-place Hockey East finish. The Terriers were able to go long stretches without losing, including a 13-game unbeaten string that spanned the new year. When that was broken by back-to-back losses at the Beanpot, BU responded with nine consecutive wins, a streak that is still active.

The Terriers also claimed the Hockey East Tournament, just as they had the season before, but devoid of much of the drama. The 2012 final required a pair of overtimes, and a win was necessary for BU to gain entrance into the NCAA field. The latest banner was earned with a 5-2 margin over Northeastern in a tournament in which the Terriers never trailed. That brought an automatic bid that the team didn’t require, being assured of an at-large berth should it have lost.

The most concise difference between the two seasons lies with Boston University’s fate once in the NCAA tournament. In 2012, BU played a roller coaster game with Cornell that mirrored its season: up three goals, down three goals, battle back to force overtime, play nearly three full OT periods, and lose in the final seconds. This year, the Terriers never trailed in vanquishing Clarkson, 5-3.

“I think we have a good set of upperclassmen,” senior forward Jill Cardella said. “We have a few who have been on the ride for the past couple years here, so I think it’s helped having a whole bunch of voices keeping the team steady and making sure the younger players understand what they need to do day in and day out to get the job done.”

It’s hard to fault the performance this year; the possible flaw outside of the Beanpot would be a three-game winless streak that included a 7-1 thumping by Boston College to end October.

“For our team, it’s just coming out with a sense of purpose,” Sperry said. “I think that in the Beanpot with that late game, we got a little too caught up in the game before us. I think that we just kind of came out thinking, ‘Alright, it’s Northeastern, we can take care of them.’ Negative. Obviously, it didn’t work out that well. You’ve seen in the last few games against Providence, against Northeastern again, against Clarkson, that we came out with a sense of purpose, and we got things done. This is our job, this is our business, we got to get it done.”

Sperry has been a big reason why BU has been able to get things done, including winning despite being outshot by sizable margins in its last three games.

“The numbers don’t lie; I’ve been playing pretty well, fairly confidently,” Sperry said. “I think your career has ups and downs, and you have parts of your game that you need to improve. This year, I think I’ve done a really good job of overcoming adversity. I had some health problems earlier in the year and I overcame that. I feel like I’m playing really strong right now, and on a good streak.”

She was named the Most Valuable Player at the Hockey East Tournament, stopping 77 of 79 shots in the semis and final.

While goaltending is obviously a huge piece of that, it isn’t the only factor. BU had to retool its blue line in the offseason after graduating three seniors, and that was accomplished in part by the arrival of junior transfer Shannon Doyle from Colgate and the return of redshirt sophomore Caroline Campbell.

“We’ve made adjustments throughout the year, and I think that everyone is learning,” Sperry said. “It’s a huge learning process, and I feel like when it comes down to it, it’s not as much talent or raw skill or numbers even, I think at some point our ‘D’ pairs have decided that they want to get the puck out of the zone. And if they want to get the puck out of the zone, they’re going to do it. Everyone playing with heart and tenacity in the defensive zone has really elevated everyone’s game.”

That’s paid dividends on the scoreboard. The Terriers are yielding just a goal and a half per game in the postseason, .81 below their season average.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve done a nice job in the defensive end, which at other times during the year, we needed a little more work on,” coach Brian Durocher said. “We’ve been able to score goals, so if we take care of business on our end, and just worry about competing hard on our end of the ice, we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Another area of strength for Boston University is found up front, where seven forwards have at least 25 points and four have 42 or more, led by the 51 of Poulin. The goal scoring is also spread out; six players have tallied at least 15, topped by Kohanchuk and freshman Sarah Lefort with 23 apiece.

“They’re a very good team,” Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti said of his upcoming opponent. “They’re very deep; they have good goaltending, a great set of ‘D,’ and very skilled forwards. They play consistent every night. They’re a well-coached team, and they’ve been here before, too.”

Like the Lakers, once the Terriers started reaching the NCAA tournament, they haven’t wanted to quit.

Cardella believes the foundation was established by other classes.

“I think there are a lot of people that started it before us at Boston University, and when we got here as freshmen, they hadn’t made it, but they laid the path for us before then,” she said. “We’ve just tried to continue that during our four years and we hope that the freshmen through juniors continue it as well.”

Both Cardella and senior defenseman Kathryn Miller have played in 149 career games, the highest total in the history of the young program. Included among those games was a trip to the final in 2011, where the Terriers lost to Wisconsin.

“I think any time you’re in the Frozen Four, it’s a great accomplishment, but at the same time you set out for the goal of winning it all,” Miller said. “Last time, we were happy to be there and we gained some experience. This time, we’re going to prepare not only this game, but the final goal, and that’s why we’re here.”

The next step in accomplishing that task is defeating Mercyhurst, a team BU defeated in a quarterfinal two season ago.

“We’ve played a couple NCAA games against them,” Cardella said. “They got the better of us the first time [in 2010], and we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder the second time, so we’ll expect them to have the same type of feeling this year.”

The teams have some familiarity, and so do the goaltenders, as they were teammates while playing for Assabet Valley.

“Steph Ciampa [of Mercyhurst] is a great goalie and she’s an even better person,” Sperry said. “She’s one of my best friends. We train together in the summer with Brian Daccord. We push each other. Throughout the year, we chat about teams, about the mental part of the game. It’s really funny coming up against her in the Frozen Four, but I think she deserves to be here. I’m really happy that we’re both getting the opportunity to play such a high-level hockey and represent our goalie coach and Assabet in such a way.”