They’ve rarely had to do this kind of math at The Heights or had to watch the scoreboards in Detroit, Minneapolis, Rochester, Lake Placid, and Houghton, Mich. By now Boston College’s hockey team customarily has an NCAA invitation wrapped up. “We usually have it in our right pocket,” observes coach Jerry York, whose varsities have qualified for seven consecutive national tournaments and 17 of the last 19.
Not this time, at least not yet. A February slump (0-5-2) put BC (20-14-4) on the bubble, tied for 15th in the PairWise rankings that determine the 16-team field going into Friday night’s Hockey East semifinal showdown with Boston University (23-10-3). If the third-seeded Eagles don’t beat the second-seeded Terriers, who’ve won their three meetings this season, they can break out their putters prematurely.
“In my four years here we’re usually on the other side,” says captain Chris Calnan, whose teammates need to win their 10th Hockey East title in 20 years to grab the automatic NCAA spot. “We’re playing teams that are hungry to stay alive. Now we’re in that position and it’s do or die. Every shift you go out there knowing you have to win. You’re playing like it’s your last game. No one’s been in that situation.”
Even though they’d shared the regular-season conference crown with BU and UMass Lowell, the Eagles were in that situation against sixth-seeded Vermont in last weekend’s home quarterfinals. “We haven’t been in that predicament much over the past decade,” mused York, whose team last missed the NCAAs in 2009 when BU beat them in the Hockey East semis. “It really felt like our sticks are going to be taken away, our season’s going to finish.”
York told his players to approach the series as a mini-regional where a loss brings an early spring and they responded with a 7-0, 7-4 sweep of the Catamounts that kept them alive. “We knew we couldn’t slip up once,” says Calnan. “Obviously, we did the job there.”
The Terriers, who’ve already clinched an NCAA berth and likely a No. 2 seed, present a more formidable barrier. They swept the Eagles, 2-1 and 3-0, in January and beat them, 3-1, in their Beanpot opener. “Losing three times to them this year there’s even more fire in this locker room,” says Calnan. “They’re our No. 1 rival and everyone’s excited.”
Getting this far is an achievement for a BC bunch that was picked by the conference coaches to finish sixth in the wake of an offseason exodus to the pros. The staff figured that three players would depart early. They never dreamed that they’d lose seven. “We thought (junior defenseman Steve) Santini, (junior defenseman Ian) McCoshen and (junior goaltender Thatcher) Demko were 100 percent flight risks,” says York. “We were prepared for that but we didn’t prepare for the other four.”
The other four were junior forward Adam Gilmour (Minnesota), sophomore forwards Alex Tuch (Minnesota) and Zach Sanford (Washington) and freshman forward Miles Wood (New Jersey). When the migration was done the Eagles had no juniors on this season’s roster. “We’re going to have a Senior Night next year with the senior manager,” jokes York. “We kept him. He turned down Gillette and he turned down Merrill Lynch and he’s going to stay.”
What remained was a solid core of seniors in Calnan, forwards Austin Cangelosi, Ryan Fitzgerald, Matthew Gaudreau, and defenseman Scott Savage plus sophomore sharpshooter Colin White and a baker’s dozen of freshmen including goalie Joe Woll. “The NHL kept coming and kept coming,” says York. “We thought, hey, we’re going to be a few years away here, rebuild the whole infrastructure.”
Instead the Eagles took wing from the beginning, going 10-2-1, winning at now-No. 1 Denver and rolling unbeaten through their first nine conference outings for the first time. That soaring start made up for a 2-5-1 stretch from December through mid-January and the end-of-season slump capped by two losses to UMass Lowell.
“When you look at the body of work we’re probably way ahead of where we thought we were going to be,” says York. “It’s been a pleasant surprise. The dire predictions of an abysmal year haven’t [happened].”
Abysmal is a rare adjective around Kelley Rink, where there hasn’t been a losing season since 1997 and eight straight with at least 20 victories. In the last two decades the Eagles have reached the Frozen Four a dozen times, played in eight finals and won four titles, most recently in 2012. “It’s BC, it’s a winning culture,” says Calnan. “Winning’s huge here, so you’re always hungry not to lose. We definitely showed that last weekend.”
Now the Eagles need to show it again against their archrivals, whom they haven’t beaten in the tournament since 2007 and who are shooting for their second title in three years. “BU’s had a lot of good ones but [this is] one of their better teams in the past decade,” observes York.
While most of the millennium has belonged to the Eagles they haven’t won this tournament or made the final in five years. This time, they have to. “We seniors have seen the championships over the past years and that’s what we want to do,” says Calnan. “We came here to win a ring. We’ve made it pretty close in two Frozen Fours, but we’re hungry as hell.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.Digital