BOSTON — Among the impressive Hockey East accomplishments amassed by Boston College during the 28-year existence of the league, it had never won three-consecutive tournament championships. In fact, no team had accomplished that feat. Saturday night, however, the Eagles won their third in-a-row with a 4-1 win over Maine.
Now, the challenge for BC turns to the national spotlight. The Eagles clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, which will be drawn Sunday afternoon.
“The Lamoriello Trophy is something we strive toward and it’s a major goal for us,” BC coach Jerry York said in reference to the award given to the tournament’s winner. “I think ourselves and the three other teams from Hockey East can do some damage in the national tournament.”
The Eagles established a quick two-goal advantage in the first period, behind the brilliance of Johnny Gaudreau, who scored both. The freshman was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
After Gaudreau sent his team on the path to victory (he also set-up the Eagles’ third goal), BC then reverted its focus to game-management in the third — avoiding bad decisions and forcing its opponent to win the game. Few teams in college hockey look more comfortable playing with the lead than the Eagles.
Without the league’s leading scorer, Spencer Abbott, the challenge for the Black Bears was to retain their offensive prowess without a key piece of the most prolific line in college hockey.
The senior forward suffered a concussion in last night’s semi-final victory over Boston University.
From the first shift, Maine immediately strove to prove that its top trio could remain productive without the Hockey East Player of the Year.
Filling Abbott’s void, and his 61 points, was not a responsibility coach Tim Whitehead intended to burden one player. Instead, several forwards, including Matt Mangene and freshman John Parker, as well as Mark Anthoine on the power play, were charged with the task.
“Obviously you can’t replace Spencer, but we’ve been in this situation before and I think our team adapted well,” Whitehead said. “The first few shifts we felt confident and were generating chances. But our other lines couldn’t generate enough chances through the remainder of the game.”
Not only is Maine paced by the productivity of its top-line, but that collection of forwards relies on the power play to generate opportunities. With Abbott on the mend, the nation’s top power play didn’t operate with the same precision as during the regular season. They finished 0-for-5 on the man advantage Saturday night.
Mangene stepped in to replace Abbott for the opening shift. The teams registered a combined 12 shots in the first four minutes. Several good saves by BC goaltender Parker Milner (41 saves) kept the score level.
Not long after, however, it was Maine goalie Dan Sullivan (39 saves) who was heavily pressured. Twice, he relented in the next three minutes. Though only the second was on the power play, both retained nearly identical qualities. The first, Maine failed to clear the puck in front of Sullivan when Gaudreau opportunistically knocked it through the goalie’s legs.
Then, with Joey Diamond in the box for interference, Gaudreau scored his second with the same delicate and silky finish. Despite the two goals, Sullivan played well in the period, making 18 saves.
The next period Maine rebalanced its effort with greater defensive emphasis and improved its puck possession. The Black Bears significantly slowed BC’s offensive pace, and earned a tangible benefit. Forcing a turnover behind the BC net, senior co-captain Brian Flynn collected the puck in front and beat Milner, cutting the lead to one.
Before Maine could reach the intermission within striking distance, BC converted the aftermath of a 2-on-2 rush up the ice. And Gaudreau once again made the goal’s defining play. He collected the puck from behind the net and sent it toward Pat Mullane who was streaking through the slot. With Maine unable to clear, the junior emphatically finished. Sullivan offered little resistance, being left fully exposed by his defensemen.
In the third, Maine struggled to identify and exploit openings in the Eagle defense. Relying on its ability to maintain the puck and outstanding fore-check, BC forced its opponent into more risk-taking behavior and put the onus on the Black Bears to generate scoring chances. The effect was few opportunities for Maine to erase the 3-1 deficit. From puck-drop of the third, the result never appeared in doubt.
For Maine, this season marks a resurgence that began in the 2010 Hockey East tournament, despite the loss Saturday night. After reaching the Frozen Four in 2006-07, the Black Bears failed to make the playoffs the following season. Though the program’s experienced better results since then, Maine has not made the NCAA tournament since that last Frozen Four run.
As in 2010, the Black Bears marshalled a strong challenge to BC’s Hockey East supremacy, falling 7-6 in overtime in the title game. Lacking the firepower of a healthy top line, the team struggled to generate offense at times Saturday night; again failing to unseat the Eagles.
Maine’s NCAA tournament hopes did not depend on winning the tournament as they did in 2010. The Black Bears will continue playing, likely as a No. 3 seed, but Abbott’s status remains undetermined going forward.
“With this type of injury its not something you can rush. We hope he’s back next week, but now our team has some experience playing without him,” Whitehead said.