Last summer, when Boston College coach Jerry York gathered his staff to discuss the 2011-12 season, he expressed cautious optimism.
The Eagles lost John Muse, Brian Gibbons, and Joe Whitney to graduation, as well as Cam Atkinson and Jimmy Hayes, who left early to turn pro.
York wasn’t sure where the goals were going to come from and the void left by Muse, a four-year starter who led BC to two national championships, meant uncertainty between the pipes.
That makes this BC edition all the more impressive. Parker Milner has emerged as a No. 1 netminder, the young players are making significant contributions, and the returning players have assumed greater roles.
None has been more significant than senior captain Tommy Cross, who heads into Saturday’s NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal against Air Force at the DCU Center in Worcester with a career-high 23 points.
More importantly, Cross has played in every game this season (40 and counting) for the first time in his college career.
Cross has missed 27 games over the previous three seasons because of knee injuries. He has been a stable presence this season and an important part of the Eagles’ winning streak that reached 15 with last Saturday’s Hockey East championship.
“His play has been outstanding,’’ said York. “We’ve never seen him really play. There have always been knee issues for him. I probably [overlook] his play because his leadership is so strong.’’
The turning point of the season came after the weekend of Jan. 20-21, when the Eagles were swept at Maine. Cross took charge of the team, impressing upon his teammates the need for a sense of urgency. BC hasn’t lost since.
“We just knew we needed to pick it up or we were going to be fighting for a spot for home ice in Hockey East,’’ said junior defenseman Brian Dumoulin, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. “Tommy did a great job of relaying to all of us and making us all aware that we just can’t play bad because if we do, we’ll continue to spiral down and the next thing you know, we’ll be fighting to make it to the NCAAs.
“From that point, getting swept and just playing bad for that half a month, it made us realize we needed to turn our act around if we wanted to get deeper into March and April.’’
Dumoulin said Cross’s influence isn’t just felt in the dressing room. Because Cross has been able to play every game, he’s been an on-ice leader as well.
“My whole career at BC, I’ve been blessed with great leadership,’’ said Dumoulin. “I feel like Tommy Cross has learned from our past leaders like Joe Whitney and Matt Price and just the things they were able to accomplish here at BC. They led us to championships and Tommy has fed off that and done an awesome job.
“He’s the leader of the team but he’s the leader of our [defense] corps, too. We have a lot of young guys on our team and he’s done a great job, especially with losing a lot of key players after last year.’’
Dumoulin said Cross has been particularly important during the winning streak. Cross scored the winning goal in BC’s first game against UMass in the best-of-three league quarterfinals.
“That’s something we’ve noticed, especially in this 15-game span, he’s been playing really well,’’ said Dumoulin. “Our whole team has been playing well. When you get a bunch of guys buying into the same system and buying into the leadership we have on the team, then things are going to go well.
“Tommy has had an unbelievable season. It’s awesome to see him playing in every game and it’s fun to have him on the bench and on the ice for a full season.’’
That also bodes well for the Bruins, who selected Cross in the second round (No. 35 overall) in the 2007 NHL draft, trading a third-round pick to move up three spots to snag him.
Last summer, during the Bruins’ developmental camp, Cross took top prospect Dougie Hamilton, a fellow blue liner, under his wing. Cross also was a standout in 2010, when the Bruins had members of the highly regarded “The Program,’’ including founder and CEO Eric Kapitulik, work with the young players on team-building and leadership.
“They identified Tommy as one of the leaders of the entire exercise that [Kapitulik] ran, so I think Tommy took a tremendous amount of confidence out of that,’’ said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s a real mature guy and I think teammates gravitate toward him for advice.’’
Sweeney said the Bruins are pleased with Cross’s progression.
“We’ve all got our fingers crossed that he’ll continue to stay healthy and all this [injury] stuff is past,’’ said Sweeney. “He’s able to find a way to train and stay healthy and we’re hopeful that’s going to continue.’’
Cross has been compared with Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg.
“They’re both really strong and they both make really good first passes,’’ said Sweeney. “Tommy has a physical maturity about him that other kids don’t have. That’s only going to serve him going forward in the pro game.’’
Meanwhile, Cross is happily immersed in college and hopes the Eagles can parlay their strong play into the school’s third national title in five years.
“I think we’re feeling like we’re confident in our game but I think we’re also very humble and realistic,’’ said Cross. “We all know we have to keep getting better. This team is incredibly tight. I’ve been lucky. I think it’s part of the culture here and Coach York’s culture that every team we have here is very tight. This year is no exception.
“This year has a different feel. I think some of the younger guys have brought some energy. Some of the older guys keep bringing the energy and that’s awesome.’’
Cross and his teammates have made believers out of York.
“I thought we were going to be down a notch,’’ said York. “We are better than I thought we were going to be. Our balance allows us to play four lines on almost a regular basis. That’s five freshman forwards playing on a regular basis. There are so many stories when you look at our lineup.’’