April 17, 2012

From NEHJ: BC's wake-up call

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON — It takes about 4½  hours to get from Orono, Maine, to Chestnut Hill, Mass. 

Boston College avenged a lost weekend in Maine with a 4-1 win in the Hockey East tournament championship game. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

As Saturday, Jan. 21 crossed over into Sunday Jan. 22, that ride grew even longer for the Boston College Eagles.

The Eagles had gone to Maine on Jan. 20 with the No. 4 ranking in the nation and a share of first place in Hockey East. They returned home with their tail feathers between their legs, stung by a sweep at the hands of the Black Bears. The 4-3 overtime loss on Friday, Jan. 20, and the 7-4 defeat one night later — capped by three unanswered Maine goals — were the low point for an Eagles team that, at 14-10-1, wasn’t quite living up to the program’s usual standard of excellence.

“We went up there, we didn’t have our best game, we hadn’t been playing good hockey,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) said. “It was a long trip up there, and even longer back.

“That woke us up; we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to come together as a team.’ We weren’t playing well at that point, and we just needed to buckle things down. If we wanted to make a run, it has to start now, we can’t keep waiting and waiting, and use the old excuse, ‘Well, BC always does this at this time of year,’ that just doesn’t happen.”

Asked what he remembered from sitting in that dark, quiet bus for the long journey back home, forward Paul Carey (Weymouth, Mass.) said, “Just that we should have had four points that weekend, and that that’s not the team we are, that we’re a much better team than that …”

More to the point, said coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.), “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to make yourself better.”

Into the night they rode, trying to leave behind the bitter taste of two of their most draining losses of the season. And it turns out that they did exactly that. The Jan. 21 loss was BC’s last in the regular season, and the following weekend they started a winning streak all the way to the Hockey East final on March 17. There, on the TD Garden ice where they already had won the Beanpot title a month earlier, the Eagles fully exorcised the demons of that fateful trip to Orono, beating Maine, 4-1, to earn their third consecutive league title, and their fifth in six years.

It was the 15th consecutive win for the Eagles, who would move through the NCAA Northeast Regional in Worcester to the Frozen Four as the No. 1 seed in the national tournament. Win No. 19 would be in the national title game, and would give BC its second national championship in three years.

First, though, the Eagles had a league title to win, and Johnny Gaudreau all but handled that task on his own. The freshman phenom — who originally was slated to go to Northeastern before opting out after the departure of NU coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) for the NHL and Ron Wilson’s (Riverside, R.I.) staff in Toronto — scored two goals and added an assist for BC en route to the tournament MVP award.

Gaudreau scored his first by jumping on an unfortunate deflection from Maine defenseman Nick Pryor’s stick with 5:24 gone in the first period. Just over two minutes later, he had his second — the game-winner, again taking a rebound and backhanding it in for a 2-0 BC lead.

It was just the next in a string of fantastic performances from Gaudreau, who, thanks to his performance in the final, moved into second place on the BC scoring chart with 19 goals and 20 assists this season.

“As far as Johnny, the sky’s the limit,” Carey said. “Coming in freshman year and putting up a season like this is really unbelievable. Especially for a guy his size, he really doesn’t shy away from anyone. His skill set is matched by no one.” 

BC freshman Johnny Gaudreau earned tournament MVP honors with two goals and an assist. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Gaudreau also is the latest in a long line of undersized players who have found success at BC. Like Nate Gerbe and Brian Gionta before him, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound forward is a perfect fit in the BC system, using his speed and vision to overcome his physical shortcomings.

“Coach (York) has had small guys here his whole career, and he knows how to use them,” Gaudreau said. “That’s what’s so special about BC.”

Gaudreau played last season for former Maine standout Jim Montgomery with the Dubuque Saints, an expansion team in the USHL that ran all the way to a title in its first year playing in the top American junior league. Gaudreau, who shared that on-ice trophy parade with current Northeastern forward Vinny Saponari during Saponari’s year away from college, said he had never won a title before last season.

“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “Coach Montgomery’s a small guy, he played for Maine, and he taught me so much because he was such a small guy, and he had such a great career at Maine. I don’t think I’d be doing as well out here at BC if it weren’t for him and all the stuff he’s taught me.”

Gaudreau’s scoring prowess led the Eagles early, and after Maine cut the lead to 2-1 at the 7:37 mark of the second on Brian Flynn’s (Lynnfield, Mass.) backhander from a Joey Diamond feed, the freshman put his distribution skills to work. Taking a feed from Carey, Gaudreau fired a backhand pass to Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) in the slot, and the junior buried it for a 3-1 lead.

“It’s incredible; he’s a magician,” Dumoulin said of Gaudreau, a smile growing on his face. “It’s funny talking about him, because of the way he is, he’s just as humble as can be. As good as you see him out there on the ice, he’s an even better person off the ice. He’s just awesome to be around, everyone on the team loves him, and for reasons both on and off the ice, we love having him on our team.”

The Eagles also got a huge boost from goaltender Parker Milner, who has been a talisman of sorts, playing his best hockey of the year just as the team around him started to put things together. His 41 saves ensured that Gaudreau’s early outburst would clinch it for the Eagles, and while Maine’s Dan Sullivan made 39 stops in a game that featured the most shots ever taken in regulation during a Hockey East final, it was Milner’s night to shine.

“We are continuing to get outstanding play from Johnny Gaudreau up front and Parker Milner on the goal line,” York said. “Those have been two reasons why we have been on a run like this. Those two are stepping up their game recently.” 

If Jan. 21 was “rock bottom,” as York said, then March 17 was one great height, and the Eagles had reason to believe it wouldn’t be their last.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.