Frozen Four Preview: Boston College
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
After losing two heartbreaking national championship games in 2006 (Wisconsin) and 2007 (Michigan State), Boston College is back to try again, making its 21st trip to the NCAA Frozen Four — and its eighth in the last 11 seasons — in search of its third national title.
Last year, the Eagles became the first team since Denver in 1963-64 to lose in the national championship game two straight years. No team has ever lost three straight title games.
To earn a chance at redemption, coach Jerry York's squad will face off with a familiar foe on Thursday afternoon at the Pepsi Center in Denver: the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, whom the Eagles have beaten in the national semifinal round each of the last two seasons. In fact, this is the eighth meeting between the schools since the start of the 2003-2004 season.
The Eagles hold a 4-2-1 edge in the series, which has become one of the most spirited nonconference rivalries of the decade.
"We've got a great feeling for what type of club North Dakota has," said York, the second winningest coach in NCAA Division I college hockey history (801). "It's not like we're playing a WCHA team that we haven't seen in a few years. It's incredible how many years we've played against them. We'll have some insight into them, we'll watch some film about North Dakota, but most of our film will be about getting better in all facets of the game.
"When we've played them, it's been a high-octane game. [Ryan] Duncan and [T.J.] Oshie — they get up and down the ice as well as any players we've seen all year. Their success has been based on a very fast and creative type team. They are extremely quick, extremely fast, and we've got to be ready for that."
The one tie in the Eagles-Sioux series came earlier this season, a 0-0 affair on Oct. 19. It was the season home opener for BC, but the game was called after two scoreless periods due to poor ice conditions that resulted from a power outage. A thick layer of fog hovered over the ice, limiting visibility.
Now that the smoke has cleared, the teams reunite on the national stage.
"It was 0-0 after two, and now we get to play the Sioux again," said York. "This is the third straight time in the Frozen Four. We've got a great history of playing the Sioux. It just seems like if we're going to advance in the tournament, we have to go through the Sioux at some point."
To get to the Frozen Four in the first place, the Eagles struggled through a tumultuous season that included multiple suspensions and two different winless streaks of at least five games. But despite finishing fourth in the Hockey East regular season standings, the Eagles were able to persevere, beating Harvard in the Beanpot championship game in February, Vermont in the Hockey East title game, and Miami in the Northeast Regional final last weekend.
Two of those three games went to overtime. The most recent hero? Freshman forward Joe Whitney, whose OT goal against the RedHawks was his 50th point of the season.
"It was an incredible play," said York of the goal, which was scored after Whitney dove and flicked the puck over Miami netminder Jeff Zatkoff — literally, in one fell swoop. "Probably one of those goals that will go down in the annals of Boston College hockey. We're extremely proud of our club."
Whitney, who is second on the team in scoring behind Hobey Hat Trick finalist Nathan Gerbe, is not the only freshman to star for the Eagles this season. Rookie John Muse is the only goaltender in the country to play every minute of his team's games in net, posting a 2.26 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage to lead in the country in 2605 minutes played.
The performance of the East Falmouth, Mass., native has keyed the Eagles' success — especially when considering that, before the season began, no BC goaltender on the roster had played even a single minute of an NCAA game.
Now, through six postseason games, Muse has a .950 save percentage.
Said York, "We opened up [our season] with the Icebreaker against Michigan. Though we lost the game in overtime, I thought [Muse] played very well. Walking back to the hotel that night, I was thinking, 'This is going to be a very good goaltender.' He showed that night that he could play at this level. But his durability has been a big factor. He's got Martin Brodeur-type numbers in terms of games played."
Muse was thrust into the starting role after then-junior goaltender Cory Schneider signed an NHL deal with the Vancouver Canucks over the summer. Schneider was meant to be the centerpiece of a large returning core for the Eagles, which included center Brock Bradford and defensemen Brett Motherwell and Brian O'Hanley.
Bradford broke his arm not once but twice and has been out of action since January. Meanwhile, Motherwell and O'Hanley were suspended for the season after violating team rules.
Needless to say, things weren't easy for the 2007-08 Eagles.
"It was a team over summer where our key guys were going to be Brett Motherwell, Cory Schneider, Brock Bradford," said York. "For a variety of different reasons, we've had to adapt to play without any of those key players. Our team has taken everything in stride and just moved forward. This is the first time we've had just one all-league player in the first two teams in Hockey East. For some reason, the team really clicks very well. The senior class — this is their third straight Frozen Four. They understand how well you have to play late in the year.
BC faced adversity late in the season as well, closing the regular season on a 1-4-1 skid.
Said York, "It was a difficult time for us. We went into our last games at Northeastern trying to win home ice in our league. Our kids stayed with great practice habits, relied on past success that we've had. We cut our penalty minutes down. We shortened a lot of our shifts and played smarter hockey. [Before that], we were playing hockey but we weren't playing smart hockey."
Indeed, the Eagles won that last game at Northeastern, 4-1 — the first of the seven straight wins with which they head to Denver. In those seven games, leading scorer Nathan Gerbe has seven goals and seven assists.
Now, one more win, and the Eagles will be headed to the national title game for the third consecutive season.
"About 95 percent of this team has been in a Frozen Four," said senior team captain, defenseman Mike Brennan. "We understand the challenge ahead and what we have to do to get to that national title game. We know what to expect, but I think the dynamics of this team are different than the past. We're a very close-knit team. Maybe we're not the most talented team in BC history but we work just as hard as any of those other teams."
BOSTON COLLEGE IN A NUTSHELL
Conference: Hockey East
Head Coach: Jerry York (Boston College '67)
Regular Season finish: 4th; HEA tournament champions
How they advanced: Won Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass. (5-2 over Minnesota, 4-3 in OT over Miami)
National semifinal opponent: North Dakota (28-10-4)
Frozen Four appearances: 21
NCAA championships: 2 (1949, 2001)