Commentary

Boston College reigns in Hockey East

Updated: March 20, 2011, 1:19 AM ET
By Brion O'Connor | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- If Boston College needs to pick a lucky number heading into next week's NCAA men's hockey tournament, "four" would be a good choice.

The Eagles have racked up four straight postseason wins, putting them four wins away from defending their national championship. And this is a team that specializes in defending titles.

In February, BC won a second straight Beanpot title with a wild 7-6 win over Northeastern, and on Saturday the Eagles defended their Hockey East crown, outlasting gutsy Merrimack 5-3 before 14,571 at TD Garden.

[+] EnlargeJohn Muse and Jeff Velleca
AP Photo/Michael DwyerBC goalie John Muse, who was named to the all-tournament team, goes airborne to avoid Merrimack's Jeff Velleca during the third period.

On Saturday, the Eagles took the lead three times, and three times the Warriors, in their first Hockey East title game, battled back to tie the game. But BC's fourth goal -- Cam Atkinson's second of the game -- proved the difference, giving the Eagles a 4-3 margin and a third-period lead they wouldn't relinquish.

"We knew we had to come out hard and play our game," said Atkinson, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "That's what we did. We pressured and played our game."

With the win, the Eagles (30-7-1) became the third team in the program's storied history to reach the 30-win plateau.

BC ran out to a 5-3 lead on Brian Dumoulin's strike at 18:24, then ran out the clock on Merrimack's impressive Hockey East run. Both teams will be part of the field of 16 for the NCAA tournament, which starts next weekend. The pairings will be announced at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2.

"I would not be surprised to see Merrimack in St. Paul," site of the Frozen Four, BC coach Jerry York said. "They're that good a club."

"We did a lot of things we needed to do to have success, but you have to play even better to knock off the champion," Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said.

In a weird statistical quirk, it was the first time that the first and fourth seeds had met for the championship in the league's 27-year history. But BC clearly had the edge in experience, playing in its third Hockey East title game in the past four years. York said that familiarity with the bright lights and big-game pressure was critical.

"It's a real plus for us," York said. "We've been here before. We've had a chance to enjoy some success, and that's something that's hard to practice at 2 in the afternoon in your own rink.

"The leadership of our players is really something that's special," said York, who has won the Lamoriello Trophy as Hockey East champion eight times with the Eagles. "When you have success, it really helps."

BC's Pat Mullane opened the scoring at 9:15 of the first, cashing in on a gift when Merrimack's Jordan Heywood muffed a cross-ice pass from Adam Ross, allowing the Eagle sophomore to walk in alone on Warriors goalie Joe Cannata. Mullane tried to deke Cannata, but the puck skipped off his stick and slipped through Cannata's five-hole.

Only 26 seconds later, Merrimack's Ryan Flanigan, the junior winger whom Cannata labeled as the team's playoff MVP, got the Warriors even. Breaking down his off-wing on the right side, Flanigan roofed a shot over BC goalie John Muse's left shoulder to knot the score, 1-1. It was Flanigan's fourth goal in four Hockey East playoff games.

And the goals kept coming. At 11:03, BC's Brian Gibbons collected a rebound of an Atkinson shot and shoveled a backhander underneath Cannata. Muse made a spectacular sliding right pad save to prevent Joe Cucci from tying it on a Merrimack power play at 14:15, but the Warriors knotted the score 2-2 on another man-advantage opportunity with 24 seconds left in the period.

Cucci, parked at the left faceoff dot, took a pass from Stephane Da Costa and rifled the puck cross-crease to freshman Mike Collins, who tapped in past Muse to complete a stellar tic-tac-toe goal at 19:36.

The scorekeeper took a break in the second period as the squads tightened up defensively, but both goalies kept busy. Muse was especially sharp, with two dandy glove saves on shots by Da Costa and Brandon Brodhag, and a big pad stop on Rhett Bly at the doorstep. After two periods, the shots were even at 24 apiece.

"We gave ourselves a chance going into the third period," Dennehy said. "If we win the third, we win the game and we win the championship. I thought we had a chance tonight. I don't think the moment was too big for us. We were ready to win a championship tonight. We just weren't good enough."

Atkinson, BC's junior sniper, put the Eagles up 3-2 at 9:41 of the third. After linemate Joe Whitney split the Merrimack defense with a great shift to get a backhander on Cannata, Atkinson drove the net and collected the rebound, popping it past the Merrimack goalie.

Flanigan got his second of the game at 13:32 for the game's third tie. Parked to Muse's left, Flanigan snapped an off-angle shot that Muse blocked. The rebound bounced back to Flanigan, who banked a backhander off Muse's left arm and into the net.

Just more than a minute later, though, Atkinson got his second goal of the period, rifling a one-timer off a feed from Patrick Wey over Cannata's blocker.

"Cam's a sniper," Dennehy said. "He's a guy who, if you give him an inch, he'll bury it."

Dumoulin gave the Eagles an insurance marker with 1:36 remaining when his snap shot from the left point deflected off Merrimack's Kevin Stollery and past Cannata.

Both clubs will get right back to work, preparing for the NCAAs.

"This group is incredibly businesslike and they want to win a championship," Dennehy said. "This was a good learning experience; that's the bad news. The good news is we continue on. I get to coach these young men again next week, which we are obviously excited about. It would be nice to meet them in the Frozen Four."

"It's important that we focus on what we could have done differently, and to use that in practice this week," said Flanigan, who was named to the all-tournament team along with teammate Stollery, and BC's Atkinson, Gibbons, Muse and Tommy Cross. "We'll start up Tuesday and get ready to go on the weekend."

Likewise, BC captain Joe Whitney said his Eagles were going to enjoy the moment, but only briefly.

"We look at it as one trophy at a time," Whitney said. "Two weeks ago, it was the regular season championship, and this week it was the Lamoriello Cup. We'll be ready to go next weekend."

Brion O'Connor covers college hockey for ESPNBoston.com.

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