WORCESTER, Mass. -- Speed may be lethal, but versatility and big-game experience proved unbeatable at the Northeast Regional as Boston College employed a dizzying arsenal of weapons to complete a sweep of Alaska-Fairbanks and Yale to land a spot in the Frozen Four.
In the end, it was BC's depth -- the Eagles rolling four highly skilled lines -- that brought the Bulldogs back to Earth, though Yale put up a valiant fight in dropping a wild 9-7 decision at the DCU Center.
Like a football team that can win a grinding, run-first game or capitalize on an electric aerial show, the Eagles showed they could win almost any type of game their opponents wanted to play. Ugly or attractive, the Eagles were only concerned about the outcome.
"The objective is to win and advance," said BC coach Jerry York after the Bulldogs cut a five-goal lead to two in the third period before running out of time. "They don't ask you if it's a pretty game."
On paper, the combatants in Sunday's regional final looked eerily similar. Both No. 1 seed Boston College and No. 3 Yale brought a fleet of crafty, tenacious forwards who could skate like the wind and score in bunches, a crew of steady, puck-moving defenseman, and two coaches considered among the more cerebral in the Division I ranks.
But there were subtle differences, starting with big-game experience. The seven BC upperclassmen have a national championship in their back pocket from 2008. The four seniors -- captain Matt Price, alternate captains Matt Lombardi and Ben Smith, and defensive leader Carl Sneep -- have been to two NCAA finals, losing a heartbreaker to Michigan State in 2007.
"Having that experience as freshmen and sophomores, it really helped our [senior] class and the junior class lead this team," said Smith. "We are moving in the right direction. Obviously, letting up seven goals, we have a lot to work on. But we are excited to move on to Detroit."
Even the BC freshmen have big-game experience, having played before more than 38,000 fans at Fenway Park in January, more than 17,000 for the Beanpot final against Boston University in February, and more than 12,000 for the Hockey East semifinals and final earlier this month.
"It helps," said York. "You can handle the jitters better when you have different experiences."
Of course, the opportunity to have those experiences is the direct result of a seemingly endless parade of top-notch talent that York and his staff have brought to The Heights. On Sunday night, the Eagles got six goals from their second line of Cam Atkinson (hat trick), Joe Whitney (two goals) and Brian Gibbons, which had been kept in check since the first game of the Hockey East quarterfinals two weeks ago. Five Eagles accounted for BC's nine goals, yet none of them scored the night before in the team's win over the Nanooks.
"To be successful, you can't be a one-line team because that line can get shut down," York said, acknowledging depth is a key component to a long run in the NCAAs. "We've recruited outstanding hockey players to BC. In a nutshell, that's why we've been so strong. You replace good players with good players."
The Eagles won in the trenches against Alaska on Saturday, 3-1. On Sunday, the goals came fast and furious, as the teams tossed caution and defense to the wind, combining for 16 goals, a regional final record. York and his players gave full credit to the Bulldogs for making life miserable for the Eagles on the defensive end.
"Those 9-7 games are always a little scary, but especially with a team like Yale, which is so good offensively," said Smith. "It was just one of those nights where who can score the most goals wins, and we did."
After the game, Smith acknowledged that BC's versatility was crucial to not only winning the Northeast Regional, but gave the team confidence heading to the Frozen Four.
"That's going to help us moving forward, being able to play both types of games, being able to gut it out like we did against Alaska, and being able to use our offense and our firepower to win a 9-7 game," said Smith.
Despite the final score, perhaps the single most glaring difference between the teams was in net. BC junior John Muse came into the regional final boasting a sparking 14-1 postseason record. In NCAA tournament games, Muse was 5-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. And although his statistics may have taken a hit on Sunday, Muse never looked rattled. The East Falmouth native kept his composure in the face of a furious Yale comeback over the last eight minutes.
"He competes," York said of Muse. "He probably wishes he had a few of those goals back. But the fact is, he's a winner, and he's going to the Frozen Four."
At the other end of the ice, Yale junior Ryan Rondeau allowed only two goals against the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota after winning a two-week, three-player goaltending audition to get the start. His performance, and the start, was a surprise to many Yale followers, since Rondeau hadn't played since Nov. 7, in a 3-3 tie against Union. On Sunday, however, Rondeau's game came apart at the worst possible time, and the junior barely made it past the halfway point of the game, leaving with BC holding a 5-2 lead.
BC's Brian Gibbons opened the scoring with a short-side sizzler that could have beaten even the best D-I keepers. Yale, the nation's top scoring outfit, responded predictably, pouring shots on the BC net, forcing Muse to make big saves on Broc Little and Colin Dueck before Brian O'Neill knotted to score.
The backbreaker for Rondeau came three minutes later. With BC short-handed, Sneep attempted a clearing one-timer from his own zone. O'Neill got a got a stick on the shot, which floated the length of the ice, bounced once about 10 feet in front of Rondeau and over the goalie's left shoulder.
"That was a huge goal, and a long goal," said a smiling Atkinson. "I think the momentum just shifted right there and then."
Though Yale coach Keith Allain stuck with Rondeau for another 14 minutes and three BC tallies, it was clear the netminder was fighting the puck. The teams traded goals to open the second period, but Atkinson struck for his first of three just 11 seconds after Mark Arcobello had brought the Bulldogs to within 3-2. Atkinson scored again at the 10:29 mark to give the Eagles some breathing room at 5-2, and Allain pulled his junior netminder seconds later.
Rondeau's goaltending colleagues didn't fare much better. The Eagles blistered eight shots on senior Billy Blase, with Whitney and Atkinson connecting. Allain then opted for freshman Jeff Malcolm, who was victimized by two Jimmy Hayes goals within 23 seconds early in the third (the fastest back-to-back goals by the same player in an NCAA regional game). Down 9-5 with less than 13 minutes remaining, Yale showed that, while comparatively thin on postseason experience, it was big on heart.
"We have offensive talent," said Allain. "We've come back before. When you do something once, you get confidence that you can do it again. It's a belief, and it's talent."
Over a five-minute stretch in the last seven minutes of the third, Yale attacked BC relentlessly and was rewarded with goals by Arcolbello (13:32), O'Neill (15:55) and Little (18:38). It was, however, too little, too late.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of my guys," said Allain. "There were numerous occasions during the course of the game where they could have thrown in the towel, but didn't."
York said Yale deserved credit for refusing to quit. Still, he added he wasn't overly concerned with his team's apparent lack of a killer instinct.
"Winning hockey games is putting teams away," he said.
Afterward, Muse looked relieved but relaxed. "Just like Maine last week [a 7-6 overtime win in the Hockey East final], it shows how tough it is to take a team's sticks away," said Muse. "No one wants to see a 9-7 game, but we won, and that's the key."
"And we're not finished yet," he said. "We've got two more games to win in Detroit. The key is to go out there and enjoy ourselves. It's business, but we're going to have fun."
With such a level-headed goaltender, and a team with more depth and versatility than some collegiate All-Star squads, the Eagles figure to be a force at Ford Field.
Brion O'Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.