MANCHESTER, N.H. — The growling began as soon as Boston University’s hockey team saw that it had been paired with a bunch of Connecticut canines in their first NCAA Tournament game in three years. What kind of a dog’s draw was this? Yale in the first round?
“I could hear some of the mumbling after the selection show,” Terriers coach David Quinn said Friday after his young varsity had escaped with a 3-2 overtime victory over the tenacious Bulldogs at Verizon Wireless Arena to advance to Saturday’s Northeast Regional final against Minnesota-Duluth, which bounced Minnesota, 4-1, in the nightcap. “Eighteen-year-olds always think somebody’s trying to screw them.”
Who did his guys think they were going to play? Malden Catholic? Salve Regina? That was Quinn’s message to his squad, all but a couple of whom knew about the NCAAs only by rumor. “You’ve still got to play,” he said.
Nobody in the field wanted any part of the Yalies. Everyone knew what happened two years ago when they were dead and gone after being blown out of the ECACs and only got their ticket to Grand Rapids when Notre Dame knocked off Michigan. But they upset Minnesota in overtime, crushed North Dakota, and ran the table.
You never let the Bulldogs in the house in springtime because they need to be dragged out by their collars. As it was, BU opened the door by beating UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East final. It took everything that the Terriers had to survive a game in which they outshot Yale, 42-23, and had seven power plays, two of them in the final three minutes of regulation. “It really was everything we thought it’d be,” mused Quinn, whose squad trailed, 1-0, after two periods.
It was, he said, a microcosm of a season during which the Terriers had to gnaw and claw their way to victory on as many nights as not. They played a dozen overtime games and won a program-record six. They had to go two extra sessions with Harvard to reach the Beanpot final and another with Northeastern to win it.
The last thing they needed was a date with a rival which had nothing to lose, which had the country’s top defense, and which had gone 96-plus minutes with Harvard in its last outing. Yale’s upperclassmen all had championship rings. Yet BU, as the No. 3 overall seed, was the favorite. A very jittery favorite, as it turned out.
“I think we definitely came out a little nervous,” said Danny O’Regan, who potted the winner on a rebound off Jack Eichel’s cannon from above the right circle. “You know, not a lot of guys on our team have been to the tournament before. We kind of showed it. We were definitely a little tense.”
So when Yale scored first on Nate Repensky’s power-play wrister in the middle period it actually loosened up the Terriers. “The pressure was off for some strange reason,’’ Quinn observed.
Last year BU had won only one of 15 games in which it gave up the first goal. This season it has won 11 of 19. The Terriers don’t chase their tails because experience has taught them that if they get back to their game and keep playing it, they’re usually fine.
They have the nation’s most prolific offense. They have a tall-standing goalie in Matt O’Connor. And they have what most folks feel is the best player in the country in Eichel, the once-in-a-generation freshman who may or may not be lacing up on Commonwealth Avenue next autumn.
And yet the Terriers easily could have been one-and-done, just as they were in their 2012 appearance when Minnesota chewed them up in St. Paul. After Ahti Oksanen drew them even at 8:21 of the third period and Evan Rodrigues put them ahead three minutes later they appeared, finally, to have the upper hand. Yale begged to differ. “I feel like that’s our identity as a team,” said senior forward Trent Ruffolo. “We fight until the very end.”
Frankie DiChiara tied things a couple of minutes later. When Eichel came in on a breakaway with barely five minutes to play in regulation, goalie Alex Lyon denied him. The Bulldogs killed off a tripping penalty in the final three minutes, then drew a hooking call with 11 seconds left and weathered the rest of it in overtime. All they needed was one bounce and the longer the game went, the more likely it seemed that Yale might get it.
But the proceedings were decided the way they were decided so often in this year of scarlet resurgence, by BU’s top line of Eichel, Rodrigues, and O’Regan. “Jack gets a puck to the net, Danny gets a goal off a rebound in overtime,” Quinn said. “We’ve seen that movie before.”
None of them had seen this particular ending, the one that saves a season and earns at least one more night. The Terriers have been appearing in this tournament for 65 years and have won it five times. The last group that did it, in 2009, was loaded with seniors who weren’t blinded by the lights. “We weren’t relying on eight to 10 freshmen a night,” said Quinn.
It hasn’t been easy or pretty but the kids have been all right so far. They’ve already skated around the Garden ice with a couple of trophies. If they handle another bunch of Bulldogs on Saturday, they’ll get to go back for the biggest one of all.