June 3, 2014

Eagles grounded in ‘Trophy Season'

By Andrew Merritt

Goalie Thatcher Demko is one cog returning for BC. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

PHILADELPHIA — Jerry York knew the day would come. It’s something you kind of have to get used to.

Two weeks before the NCAA tournament came to Philadelphia for the national semifinals and final, and right after York’s Boston College Eagles beat UMass-Lowell in the Northeast Regional final in Worcester, Mass., York reflected on the reality that no matter how things turned out at the Frozen Four, his team would watch several of its best players close the book on their careers.

“To be a good team, you better be ready to lose good players,” the Watertown, Mass., native said. “But we’ve always had to do that. Otherwise you’re not very good. When you’re good, you lose good players. This is probably no different than ’12, ’10, we had the same thing. (In) ’08, we had (Nathan) Gerbe, we thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”

That’s the flip side to another good year at Boston College: At some point, it had to end, and with it would end the BC careers of a few elite-level players.

Eleven days later, the end came, and it came a few days sooner than the Eagles had hoped. Boston College was outdueled by Union in the national semifinals, falling 5-4 to the eventual national champion Dutchmen on April 10 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.

The Dutchmen did it by largely eliminating BC’s ability to hold the puck and dictate the offensive pace. When Johnny Gaudreau staked BC to a 1-0 lead just 2:08 into the game, it seemed the Eagles would be able to do what they’d done many times during the season and control the game the rest of the way. In fact, the Eagles had lost just twice all year after scoring the first goal, and they were undefeated when leading after one period.

But Union didn’t wilt as many others have in the face of an early BC lead this year. The Dutchmen tied it 2:39 into the second period, and Daniel Ciampini scored with 9:15 to go in the frame for a 2-1 lead. Union never trailed again. Steve Santini tied it for the Eagles five minutes later, but Ciampini scored his second of the game 6:31 into the third period on a power play, and when the Dutchmen killed off a five-minute major penalty to Matt Hatch, hope for the Eagles began to dwindle.

The Eagles didn’t go quietly, however. After Mike Vecchione (Saugus, Mass.) made it 4-2 Union with 9:07 to go, Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) gave BC a tiny sliver of hope, scoring with just 1:45 left. Ciampini completed his hat trick with an empty-netter, but even then, BC clung to what remained of its season. Patrick Brown scored with 4.3 seconds left, and on the ensuing faceoff, the puck came directly to Gaudreau’s stick.

At that point, with a goal and an assist in the game, Gaudreau had run his point total to 80 for the season, which was one of the best in recent memory by any individual player. And No. 81 would have been something quite incredible, a tying goal in the dying seconds of a national semifinal.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Gaudreau’s shot hit harmlessly in the middle of Union goalie Colin Stevens’ chest. A few hours later, Minnesota pulled off one of the most magical moments in Frozen Four history by winning on a goal scored with six-tenths of a second left in its game against North Dakota, but the Eagles couldn’t match that magic.

The loss left the Eagles looking for answers. In the postgame press conference, Gaudreau choked back tears as he talked about what it meant to play on a big stage so close to his Carneys Point, N.J., home.

“Yeah, it was emotional. Any time family and friends are here. And I got to play with my brother (Matt, a BC freshman) here, too. So it’s going to be a pretty good memory I’m going to have.”

The Eagles’ season is a difficult one to evaluate. On one hand, there was no shortage of highlights — Gaudreau chief among them. His 80-point year included a 31-game point streak during which he collected 29 goals and 32 assists. His linemates, Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) and Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.) combined with Gaudreau to form the most fearsome trio in the nation, averaging more than five points per game.

The Eagles won the 2014 Beanpot, marking five straight titles in a tournament that used to be half-jokingly called the “BU Invitational” because of Boston University’s dominance, but which might need a more BC-friendly moniker now considering the program’s ownership of it.

But BC also fell short at a time of year when Eagles teams are generally counted on to perform. It’s what York calls “Trophy Season,” and this year, the cupboard is a little empty. The Eagles took the Hockey East regular-season title but were bounced by newcomer Notre Dame in the league quarterfinals as UMass-Lowell won its second straight tournament championship. And then there was the disappointment in Philadelphia.

Some teams would count a regular-season title and a Frozen Four appearance as a high water mark. But Boston College has won three national championships since 2008 and nabbed three straight Hockey East titles from 2010-12. This year’s squad might not have been the deepest in York’s tenure, but there’s no arguing that the three players on the top line were among the best ever to come through Chestnut Hill. So there isn’t much consolation in a good year for a program that aims for greatness.

“We’re very disappointed, no question on that subject,” York said after the season-ending loss. “I’m very proud of guys who are reaching so high that they want to be that type of team that wins national championships. But it’s hard to reflect back now. We’re certainly not ready to do that.”

The time will come to reflect. The offseason has begun. The top liners are all gone — Gaudreau signed away his senior season in favor of starting his pro career, and Arnold and Hayes both reached the end of their four years at BC. Patrick Brown, this year’s captain, is also done at Chestnut Hill, as is senior defenseman Isaac MacLeod, who grew into a keystone role on the Eagle blue line.

They’ll be replaced on the roster. York is already excited about his incoming freshman class, saying it “might be the best one I’ve had.”

This year ended too soon for the Eagles’ tastes. But a spring of disappointment will soon give way to a summer of preparation, which will then give way to another autumn, another season of hope and expectation on Chestnut Hill.      

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com