TAMPA - When Jerry York met with his staff last summer, the Boston College hockey coach viewed his team as something of a jigsaw puzzle, with its pieces scattered all over.
He knew that eventually he’d figure out where they would fit together, but because of the players they had lost from the year before it was going to take time.
York talked about it being a sort of rebuilding year, but the Eagles don’t rebuild, they reload.
Although the 2011-12 squad wasn’t predestined to be a national champion in anyone’s book, no one thought the Eagles would be anything but smack dab in the thick of it when winter turned to spring.
And as the season went deeper into the stretch run, it became clear what BC had was evolving into something very special. On Saturday, in the Frozen Four championship game against upset-minded Ferris State, the Eagles proved just how special when they earned the program’s third national championship in five years with a 4-1 win.
The standouts? They were everywhere. Goaltender Parker Milner was frightening in his stinginess. In the four games the junior played in the NCAA Tournament, he allowed just two goals. Junior defenseman Brian Dumoulin was a one-man penalty killer who willed more time off the clock than any other player. Senior defenseman Tommy Cross was a punishing force, Steven Whitney contributed the first and the last goal, and Johnny Gaudreau scored the awe-inspiring third goal.
The Eagles (33-10-1) were worried about Gaudreau’s defense to start the season, but as time went by, he demonstrated that he was a team player and bought into the system. Saturday night, however, he gave himself permission to deviate. Players with his gifts see things on the ice others do not. Instead of dumping the puck deep and going for a line change, he saw an opening. He beat one defender, used a toe drag on the other, and roofed a breathtaking backhander.
“At that point, it was kind of a one-on-one and we had four guys back, and he realized that,’’ said junior Pat Mullane, who centers the line with Gaudreau and right wing Paul Carey. “So, good for him. Go, Johnny, go. Johnny has bought in. He doesn’t pull those moves very often unless he knows the opportunity is 100 percent right. He was 100 percent right [Saturday night] and he pulled it off.’’
It was so impressive a move that no one in the press corps even had the heart to ask Ferris State goalie Taylor Nelson about it after the game.
But Gaudreau was just one of the Eagles who became a bona fide star. The entire team went from cocoon to full-fledged butterfly over the course of nearly seven months.
As the whole became greater than the parts, BC went from a pretty talented squad seeking an identity to one with a genuine No. 1 goaltender in Milner, four viable lines that contributed on a nightly basis, six veteran defensemen who worked together like a well-oiled machine, and a coaching staff that deftly figured out that the leadership of the senior class - led by Cross, who was the captain - raised everyone’s standards and expectations.
The puzzle started coming together at the end of January. The Eagles had started off the season well at 8-1-0, except what the players and coaches both knew is that it wasn’t going to be good enough. If there is such a thing as a subpar 8-1-0, BC was it.
The forwards were playing too loosely, there were too many turnovers at both blue lines, and the system was still a work in progress. If the objective was to be a team, there was too much freelancing going on.
It caught up to the Eagles from Nov. 5 to Jan. 21, when they stumbled their way through a 16-game span, winning just six games (6-9-1). A sweep at the hands of Maine in Orono Jan. 20 and 21 shook the team out of its doldrums and forced it to choose whether good enough was, well, good enough.
York challenged his team and Cross and the upperclassmen challenged it further.
“In the beginning of the year, we didn’t know where everyone was going to fit in,’’ said Mullane. “As the year went on, everyone realized what their role was and where they were going to fit. The reason we were successful was because guys bought into that. A lot of teams that aren’t successful don’t buy into that idea of ‘I’m going to take my role and embrace it.’ Because everyone wants to be a goal-scorer, but if you’re going to be successful, you can’t have all goal-scorers. Our team realized that we had to be our best in our individual roles.’’
You can’t teach talent, yet although BC lost a lot from the previous year, it retained a great deal, too.
But had anyone told the team it was going to win 19 straight on the way to the NCAA title, he or she would have been dismissed as an overly enthusiastic fan, not an objective observer. The streak of greatness just proved that the puzzle was, indeed, complete.
“I believed in the team and I believed in what we had in our locker room,’’ said Mullane. “But [the longest win streak in a single season] in BC history? That’s pretty impressive. There couldn’t be a better group of guys to do it with.’’