TAMPA - The fact that Boston College is in the Frozen Four shouldn’t come as a shock. The Eagles have advanced this far five times in the last seven seasons, and 10 times in the last 15.
However, the 2011-12 edition has surprised many, including coach Jerry York. After losing four-year starter John Muse in goal and a plethora of goal scorers (Brian Gibbons, Cam Atkinson, Joe Whitney, and Jimmy Hayes, who combined for 167 points last season), it appeared the squad would be decent, but not necessarily championship-caliber.
When the Eagles face Minnesota Thursday night in the national semifinals at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the team will reflect the journey that has led it here.
BC started well (8-1-0), then stumbled in a major way (6-9-1). That worried York, particularly after being swept at Maine Jan. 20 and 21.
“We had become an average team,’’ he said. “We had to make a self-evaluation about what type of team we wanted to be. If you go after [the elite status], then you have to bring a better work ethic, a better intensity to every day, we’ve got to play better, we’ve got to get better goaltending, and we’ve got to get better special teams. Our kids, they didn’t want to be average.’’
Since that rough patch, the Eagles have won 17 in a row and are two victories away from their third NCAA crown in five years.
But ask the players about the incredible winning streak and the question barely registers.
“I don’t think I’ve taken time to step back and evaluate this big win streak that we’ve had,’’ said junior defenseman Patrick Wey. “I think everyone would say the same thing. It just really came together and it’s a testament to our coaches’ preparation, our practice habits. It’s just been a day-to-day thing. The culture here is that you always work at it and you always approach each game as best prepared as you can to win. It just so happened we were able to win one game 17 times and we are where we are now.’’
If coaches are comforted by knowing what they have coming into any given year, Wey said sometimes the journey to find out the identity of a team can be more rewarding.
“For me, it was exciting to come in with a little bit of uncertainty as to how the team was going to pan out,’’ he said. “[Last year], we knew we had all these great players coming back and we knew we’d at least be pretty decent. This year, while we didn’t know what kind of players were coming in, we knew what kind of environment they were coming in to. That’s not to say you completely change the player when you come [to BC], but I think there are parts of your game, and your person, that the coaches here and your teammates shape about you that make you into a player who can compete at the highest level with other college teams.
“I think that is how BC is successful year in and year out. It’s the culture we’ve built here. It’s founded on character and hard work. While we didn’t know per se who was going to step up and fill the holes that were left, I was at least optimistic at the beginning of the year that our culture would bring up someone to do so.’’
The record reflects the victories, but the way BC is playing is startling. Not only did the Eagles beat Air Force and defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the Northeast Regional, they did it by a combined score of 6-0.
Senior goalie Chris Venti said he had a great feeling on the morning of the regional final against Minnesota-Duluth in Worcester.
“We had that boxer’s mentality, we wanted to knock out the champ,’’ he said. “We were out to dinner on Friday night [watching games in other regions, the night before the regional semifinal against Air Force], you could just see it at the table. They wanted to be playing right then. There’s something about this team, I haven’t seen it other places. It could be a pickup game, a regular-season game or the national championship, everyone is ready to go. We just keep getting better.’’
Although the Eagles are focused solely on the Golden Gophers, York always has been candid about his program’s desire to win trophies.
Junior center Pat Mullane said the expectations may not have been there at the beginning of the season, but the players’ objectives were never anything less than the top.
“We understood that just because it may be a rebuilding year, we’re not going to sit back and be a .500 team, an average team,’’ he said. “We have learned at Boston College that some teams strive to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s not what we strive for. Our ultimate goal is to win the national championship. We never saw it as a rebuilding year.’’