BOSTON -- Maine started the season with a bonding exercise, climbing the state's tallest peak, 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin.
It was a harbinger for the season, as Maine faced a near-constant uphill battle, starting with low expectations (picked to finish eighth in Hockey East in the preseason polls) and continuing with a rash of injuries, and later suspensions, to key starters. But coach Tim Whitehead's squad persevered.
Ultimately, though, the one thing the Black Bears (19-17-3) couldn't overcome was the team from The Heights.
Boston College survived a furious Maine comeback and won the Hockey East final 7-6 on senior Matt Lombardi's overtime goal.
The Eagles (25-10-3) went 3-0-1 against Maine on the season.
"Sometimes the hero comes out of obscurity to become the MVP and a real difference-maker," BC coach Jerry York said of Lombardi. "I'm so excited for Matt, who has worked extremely hard for four years. To get rewarded like that is pretty special."
The game-but-outgunned Black Bears never led in the game, but they never quit, either. In the end, however, all they succeeded in doing was setting the stage for Lombardi, who picked the perfect night to record his first collegiate hat trick, securing tournament MVP honors in the process.
In overtime, Maine came at the Eagles, taking several long-range shots that missed the target. BC nearly closed it out at the five-minute mark, but Maine goalie Dave Wilson denied a Steve Whitney bullet with a lightning-quick glove save. Twenty seconds later, BC captain Matt Price chipped the puck low. Lombardi went and got it, driving the net and jamming it through Wilson for the winner.
"Matty [Price] was talking about how hard it is to get to the top of the mountain," said Jimmy Hayes, who had a goal and an assist for the Eagles. "There's only room for one team on top of the mountain, and it's just unbelievable when you're up there."
It is the ninth league championship for the Eagles, the third in the past four years. But it didn't come easy.
The first two periods were wild enough, with BC holding a 4-3 edge, but they were a mere prelude to a rollicking third stanza. Hayes gave the Eagles a two-goal cushion at 5:16 with a slick spin-o-rama move to Wilson's left. Using his body to shield the puck, Hayes swept it on net and through Wilson. Three minutes later, Maine's David de Kastrozza, pouncing on a puck that had ricocheted from behind the net, sent a laser past BC goalie John Muse's right ear to bring Maine within one.
At 14:23, Lombardi floated a soft shot on goal that Maine's Jeff Dimmen couldn't collect. BC's Barry Almeida, camped in front, did. He pulled it wide of Wilson's left pad, tucking the puck inside the right post to give the Eagles a 6-4 lead.
Maine, showing its trademark resiliency, didn't quit. After a brief delay to replace a pane of Plexiglas, but 26 seconds following Almeida's goal, the Black Bears scored. Maine's Robby Dee sent an offensive zone faceoff back to Spencer Abbott, who cracked a seeing-eye shot that beat Muse over his blocker. Then, with less than 30 seconds left on the clock, freshman Joey Diamond got his second goal with a sparkling move. Grabbing the puck from a scramble in the low slot, Diamond waited out Muse and roofed a wrister to send the game into overtime.
"The captains came up [during the break before OT] and just told us to play a fearless game, and not be afraid to make mistakes," BC's Hayes said.
From there, Lombardi, the senior assistant captain from Milton, Mass., with only seven goals in 140 career games coming in to the final, scored one last time to complete his hat trick, culminating an MVP performance and knocking the Black Bears out of NCAA consideration.
"This really propels us into the national tournament," York said. "The Lamoriello Cup [the Hockey East championship trophy] is something we point toward, but the national tournament and the national trophy is really what we aim for. And we're going to go in there with guns blazing."
The Black Bears are left to ponder what might have been after coming within a whisker of making the NCAA field.
"It stings really bad," said Tanner House, Maine's junior captain. "We want to be back here next year."
"We're proud of how our guys competed and the poise we showed under pressure down the stretch," Whitehead said. "There certainly wasn't any quit in our team."
Maine twice climbed out of a one-goal hole to finish the first period tied 2-2 despite being outshot 16-8. From the opening faceoff, the Eagles were the aggressor, launching a barrage shots at Wilson. The senior netminder -- arguably Maine's MVP through its playoff run after stepping into the starter's role, posting a 1.47 goals-against average over the first four playoff games -- stonewalled BC through the first 11 minutes.
At the 11:44 mark, BC burst Wilson's bubble. With the Eagles on the power play, Pat Mullane sent a perfect pass to BC defenseman Carl Sneep at the right point. Sneep's slap shot scorched past a Maine defender and beat Wilson gloveside, just inside the right post.
Maine responded 24 seconds later. House, storming straight through the slot, took a low shot that Muse bobbled. Charging hard to the net, Gustav Nyquist tapped it past Muse to knot the score, 1-1.
Lombardi gave the Eagles a 2-1 lead at the 15:19 mark. He beat Wilson to a loose puck and managed to chip it past the Maine goalie. Black Bear defenseman Mark Nemec grabbed the puck while sliding on his backside, but couldn't stop his momentum, and he and the puck ended in the Maine net.
And again, Maine answered, almost immediately. Diamond, one of Maine's brightest stars this weekend, parked in front of the BC net and deftly redirected a backhander by Dimmen past Muse.
In the second period, the Eagles managed to put some distance on Maine, scoring two unanswered goals in the first six minutes. BC's Joe Whitney struck first at 1:39 on a power play, snapping a shot from the left point through a screen set by teammate Ben Smith and past Wilson's block.
At 5:25, Lombardi got his second goal of the game (and his first multipoint game of the season) to give the Eagles a 4-2 cushion. Price ripped a shot wide from above the right faceoff circle that Wilson overplayed. The rebound came off the backboard to Lombardi, who wrested it through a Maine defender, the shot deflecting off Wilson's gloves as he tried to scramble back into the net.
However, an uncharacteristic BC parade to the penalty box (six minors) allowed the Black Bears to sneak back into the game. Following a monster 5-on-3 penalty kill by the Eagles, highlighted by tenacious team defense and Muse's quick glove hand, Maine got within a goal at 15:04. House set up residence directly at the top of the crease, took a tape-to-tape feed from Nyquist, and blasted it past Muse's left pad to finish a superb bang-bang play. The penalty parade also helped put the clamps on BC's offense over the second half of the second stanza, as the Black Bears outgunned the Eagles, 16-5.
"Our plan was to not take penalties," said York, noting that Maine came into the final sporting the nation's most potent power play. "We were shooting ourselves in the foot the entire second period."
Brion O'Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.