Boston University coach Jack Parker expressed pride in his team after the Terriers survived a three-game Hockey East quarterfinal series against New Hampshire last weekend.
Two of the games went to double overtime, including the deciding third on Sunday, which launched them into the semifinals at TD Garden against Maine on Friday night.
But the veteran bench boss wasn’t just expressing praise for the winning result. The emotion came from a far deeper place than what his players were able to accomplish on the ice.
The Terriers (23-13-1) have overcome losing two top players to criminal sexual assault charges (Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro) and a third (Charlie Coyle) who left to turn pro.
Captain Chris Connolly and assistant captains Alex Chiasson and Justin Courtnall did their best to keep the Terriers from splintering apart during the turmoil that rocked the BU campus and prompted the formation of a task force to look into the culture of the hockey program.
“I was really proud of this team, after all the stuff they’ve been through, the guys that have disappeared from this lineup, the people that have stepped up, the focus that they’ve had and the senior leadership that we’ve gotten, it makes me feel real good about what’s going on in that dressing room,’’ said Parker, in his 39th year behind the BU bench. “They really deserved to get to the Garden and they certainly deserved to get to the national tournament, and [the win over UNH] probably gets us [to the NCAAs]. We still are alive to win the Hockey East championship and that’s pretty nice.’’
One of the reasons the Terriers are playing so well is senior goaltender Kieran Millan, who made a career-high 68 saves (a quarterfinals record) against UNH in Game 3.
Arguably the most exciting period of the season was the first overtime, during which the teams combined for 30 shots, many of which were Grade A scoring chances.
“It was definitely interesting and a little nerve-racking,’’ said Millan, who improved to 20-12-1 and has a program-best 81 career wins. “It was definitely run and gun a little bit more than we wanted, but we were able to hold through it and generated some good opportunities.’’
When the Terriers were going through adversity, Millan said he didn’t feel he needed to do more. He said the improved defense during the second half was a natural development given how important each game became down the stretch in the tight Hockey East standings.
“For the most part, every year I’ve been here we’ve tightened up defensively during the second half of the season,’’ said Millan. “I don’t know if the onus was on me to really step up. I think it was more for me to stay with it and go through all the [ups and downs] while the team adjusted to the new [combinations and new centers] and their new roles in the lineup.’’
Connolly and Sahir Gill moved from wing and wound up being keys to BU’s surge at the start of 2012. Some in hockey circles predicted the off-ice problems would sink the squad, particularly after an uninspired performance at Notre Dame Dec. 31 in their first game back from the semester break. But the Terriers didn’t feel that way.
“I don’t think anyone doubted that we were still a good team,’’ said Millan. “The more we played and the more guys started to step up and play well who really weren’t playing that much before, gave everyone else confidence that we really do have some good players who can fit in here down the stretch.’’
Sophomore defenseman Garrett Noonan, who had a career-high three points in Game 3 against UNH, including two goals, said it isn’t possible to overstate the role Connolly played in keeping the Terriers unified.
“Chris called a meeting and said, ‘This is how it’s going to be and this is what it is and we’re going to have to deal with it,’ ’’ said Noonan. “He’s done a tremendous job for us, just holding everyone accountable and not making any excuses. He’s just been awesome for us.’’
Noonan, who is tied for first in the nation with Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz for goals by a defenseman with 16, said the team has stayed focused despite knowing that there are some people outside the program who have chosen to paint the Terriers with a negative broad brush.
“I don’t think it’s us against the world,’’ said Noonan. “We have great fans and stuff like that, but I feel like if people are going to hate on us, they can do that. I don’t think we’re too worried about what everyone is saying. We know how good the people are in our room and how good a guy everyone is. People can always think what they want, but we know how much character there is in our room. It starts with our coaching staff. They’ve been awesome throughout this whole thing and they really want us to succeed, and we want to win for them.’’
The last time the Terriers faced Maine, the Black Bears spanked them twice at Agganis Arena Jan. 27 and 28, by a combined score of 7-3. No one at BU has forgotten that.
“We’re a different team now,’’ said Noonan. “We’ve gone through some stuff and I think it’s made us stronger. It feels good to be playing good hockey right now and we just want to keep going and use this weekend as a steppingstone to the [NCAA] tournament. We’re going [to the Garden] to win it. With what’s gone on this year, there’s always someone who has something to say. There’s something to prove every night we go out there and we put that BU jersey on. We want to wear it with pride and we want to win. ’’
And if they do, they will owe no small portion of it to Connolly, who served as a beacon of calm as the Terriers navigated stormy waters.
“With everything that’s happened, our captains have done an unbelievable job keeping us unified,’’ said Millan. “It’s been a pleasure having them lead our team, and without them it could have been a very different reaction to what happened. We’re very fortunate.’’