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January 28, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Boston College Longs to Belong in City of Champions

Boston College Seeking Title Game Redemption

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

A week away from the Beanpot, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Harvard surely appreciate the importance of winning college hockey's most famous in-season tournament — if for nothing else than for bragging rights in a city in which championships, now more than ever before, mean everything.

After all, the Boston Red Sox are World Champions, the Boston Celtics own the NBA's best record, and if you haven't heard, the New England Patriots are a Super Bowl victory away from completing a perfect 19-0 season on Sunday night. And it is in this kind of sports environment that the Boston College Eagles have advanced to two straight Beanpot title games, as well as two consecutive national championship games.

On all four occasions, however, they fell one goal short. In the national title games, a last-second desperation shot to tie the game against Wisconsin in 2006 hit the post, and in 2007, Michigan State's Justin AbdelKader scored a dramatic goal in the final 20 seconds to win the championship for the Spartans.

Abdelkader's tally was the final goal allowed by then-junior, All-American goaltender Cory Schneider. His departure, as well as the loss of captain Brian Boyle, rendered the Eagles with numerous questions entering the 2007-08 season.

Who would fill the leadership role vacated by Boyle? Would incoming freshman goaltender John Muse play well in Schneider's absence?

"Losing two All-Americans, we had to re-tool from there," said coach Jerry York. "We were a club in transition."

And it showed.

By the day after Thanksgiving, the Eagles had struggled to a 3-4-5 overall record and were caught in six-game winless slump. They had played almost their entire season without junior forward Brock Bradford, who scored 45 points in 42 games as a sophomore but broke his arm in his season debut. And the team's inner turmoil mounted when senior forward Brian O'Hanley and junior defenseman Brett Motherwell were suspended for violating team rules. Motherwell left the team and school, and O'Hanley hasn't played since the Eagles' season- opening loss to Michigan on Oct. 12.

Said York, "This particular team is a lot different than we expected it to be, just because of the suspensions of two defensemen early in the season and the loss of Brock Bradford — significant players who we were expecting to play key roles for our team. We sort of had to go back to square one, see who was going to play, and how we were going to operate without those three individuals for the duration of the season."

Apparently, they just needed a little while to figure it out.

Since losing to Northeastern in overtime on Nov. 23, York's squad has gone 9-1-2 overall, moving to within one point of first-place New Hampshire in the Hockey East standings. And as the team has started to establish its identity, the offense has emerged as well. After scoring only 12 goals in its first six games of November, BC found the back of the net 31 times in its final five games of 2007. The streak began with a weekend sweep in a home-and-home series with age-old rival Boston University.

So what caused such a dramatic early season turnaround?

"I think we've progressed, " said York. "We've improved in a lot of different areas. Some of our players lower on our depth chart have now had to come forward, and they're playing pretty well for us.

"We just stay the course. Basically, we have solid systems in place for how we want to play, and we recruit players for that type of system. We can't guarantee wins, but no panic set in. We knew we had a good club. [In November], we were right there. Some of our freshmen have emerged. You take a couple hits, you look at film, and you move on."

It has also helped the Eagles that Muse has answered any lingering questions that were borne out of Schneider's departure. The rookie from East Falmouth, Mass. has started all 24 games for BC this season, posting a 2.27 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage — both good for second-best in the country among freshman goaltenders.

Muse is also becoming the mark of consistency for the Eagles, and he is one of only two goaltenders in the nation to play every minute of his team's games in net, joining Jean-Phillipe Lamoreux of North Dakota.

In addition to highlighting Muse's efforts, York credited Tim Kunes and Anthony Aiello for emerging as strong defensemen and noted that several other players have played key roles in the Eagles' turnaround as well.

Said the veteran coach, "Of course, Nathan Gerbe has been the prime player everyone wants to talk about, but two freshmen, [Brian] Gibbons and [Joe] Whitney, have really added to our lineup, Ben Smith has shown the most improvement in our team this year from last year, and Benn Ferriero has been one of the top players in our conference and certainly is one of our keys.

"We're pretty multi-dimensional. We've got some really good offensive players who can create a lot of offensive chances."

Carrying the torch from a leadership standpoint has been captain and senior defenseman Mike Brennan, whom York said has "a dominant personality" and called his play on the ice "contagious." And in a season in which Hockey East has experienced an almost unprecedented level of top-to-bottom parity, York needs every player on his roster to step up.

"It's always been a very competitive conference," said York. "But this year, the top end has been shaken up a little bit with the emergence of Lowell and Northeastern. UMass has certainly had a good year. Providence has a real shot of winning this thing. In fact, there are probably six or seven teams who have a realistic chance at winning the conference."

Now, with the 55th annual Beanpot coming to the TD BankNorth Garden next week, and with the NCAA tournament only two months away, the Eagles are comfortably one of those teams with a realistic chance.

And, of course, if they succeed, they'll bring yet another title to Boston.

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