March 30, 2014

Boston College bends, then bounces back

By Andrew Merritt

Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold's goal gave Boston College a 2-1 lead late in the second, but the Eagles still had some work to do after UMass-Lowell quickly struck back. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

WORCESTER, Mass. – All year long, it has been a rarity to see Boston College face adversity.

The Eagles, as has been the case for most of the last decade, generally don't put themselves in a position to play from behind or chase the game.

So when UMass-Lowell's Josh Holmstrom tied the NCAA Northeast Regional final with 1:16 to go in the second period Saturday night, and Evan Campbell gave the River Hawks their first lead just 43 seconds into the third, it seemed like a legitimate question whether BC would be able to rebound.

That question took all of 21 seconds to answer.

Just half of a shift after Campbell drove down the right wing and bounced a backhanded prayer in off of BC defenseman Steve Santini's skate, Eagle freshman Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) took off with the puck from the defensive zone, beat every River Hawk on the ice and deftly deked past UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to tie the game back up at 3 goals apiece.

"I think if we could've plugged away after we scored instead of giving it up right away, it might have been a different result," said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "I was hoping to play with the lead for a little while, and see how we did with that, make them earn it."

Instead, Fitzgerald erased the River Hawks' lead, and half a period later, the Eagles retook control for good on freshman defenseman Ian McCoshen's first career game-winning goal, coming off a prescient pass from McCoshen's classmate and defensive partner, Teddy Doherty (Hopkinton, Mass.).

The Eagles' ability to bounce back from the River Hawks' two quick strikes is something that has been there all year, according to coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.). But that resiliency has seen its biggest test over the last three weeks, starting with the Eagles' loss to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

There, BC had two of its worst games of the year at a pretty crucial time, and the Irish capitalized in taking the best-of-3 series. But in the end, not advancing to the Hockey East semifinals for the first time since 2004 might have been a good lesson for the Eagles, who showed no loss of composure when UMass-Lowell took the lead Sunday night.

"It re-emphasizes that our players' compete level is really high," York said. "We have a real good balance of players, and we do have a really good team unity in our group of guys.

"You check your ego when you come play for us."

The River Hawks, who lost to BC on Feb. 21 but bounced back for a key tie the next night, gave the Eagles all they could handle in a fantastically entertaining regional title game.

"They pushed us to the zenith of our effort," York said.

And the River Hawks tested whether Boston College could handle being in a true dogfight after its disappointing early exit from the Hockey East tournament.

How disappointing was it? When Kevin Hayes talked about playing UMass-Lowell in a game with a Frozen Four berth on the line, he referred to the River Hawks taking "our title" – a not-so-subtle suggestion that the Eagles usually feel a sense of ownership over the league crown they had won in five of the seven years before UMass-Lowell's insurrection of 2013 and 2014.

One of the big keys to that sustained success has been BC's relentless attack, which takes its foot off the gas about as often as a NASCAR driver at Daytona. Usually, that relentlessness is the difference between a one-goal win and a three- or four-goal blowout.

Sunday night, that relentlessness manifested itself as a sign of a team whose pride took a serious shot with the quarterfinal loss, and who had no interest in going quietly out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in as many years. In fact, because of BC's win Sunday, the Eagles get another crack at Union, the team that unceremoniously sent BC packing in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.

There have been many occasions over the last few seasons in which a goal like Fitzgerald's has led to an avalanche from the Eagles, as the opposition wilts and loses focus. It certainly had the opposite effect on Fitzgerald's teammates.

"It was huge, that goal by Ryan Fitzgerald was just unbelievable," said Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.), who had BC's first goal in the first period. "I think there's a little more excitement on the bench when you see the young guys score."

Yet Bazin said he was still confident after Fitzgerald's tying goal.

"I didn't think it was a dealbreaker when they scored right after we did," he said. "It was just a matter of scoring that next one."

Unfortunately for the repeat Hockey East champion River Hawks, "that next one" came off of a Boston College stick – and not one of the usual stars, though Johnny Gaudreau had two assists as his linemates, Hayes and Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.) each scored.

"That next one" instead came from McCoshen, a freshman, who has seen his team face disappointment, but who can also say now that he's helped the Eagles return to form.

Twitter: @A_Merritt