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BU leads road to Hockey East tourney

3/12/2009

For 143 days and 22 weekends, the 10 members of Hockey East skated their way through 213 games during the league's 25th anniversary season.

As those numbers would suggest, it is part journey and part survival just to reach the finish line.

The 2008-09 season was filled with memorable moments and performances, but anyone involved with the six-month grind that starts before the leaves fall and ends after most of the snow has melted will tell you everything is geared toward the next month of play -- if a team is lucky to play that long.

The regular season helps define the contenders and expose the pretenders on the road to the Hockey East championship and possibly the national tournament.

Heading into the final weekend of regular-season play, a few things were certain: Merrimack and Providence would be left out of the league playoffs -- a first for the Friars -- and defending national champion Boston College wouldn't skate on home ice in the postseason for the first time since 2002.

What wasn't known yet was the order of finish for the top four teams, including which school would skate off with the inaugural trophy created for the regular-season champion.

Friday, March 6
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- If you've never been to Vermont's Gutterson Field House, you're missing out on one of the true treasures in college hockey.

It doesn't have the history of a place like Northeastern's Matthews Arena or the theatre-like amenities of BU's Agganis Arena, but The Gut is as comfortable as jeans and a sweatshirt on the weekend.

And on the first Friday of March, some nonregulars got a chance to squeeze into one of the always sold-out 4,003 seats because an absent student body was off enjoying spring break.

Even with the college-age crowd missing, the old barn was buzzing before the drop of the puck for the weekend series against New Hampshire. The Catamounts and Wildcats came in tied for third place at 14-7-4 in league play. UNH won an earlier meeting back in January, so UVM needed three points to secure the No. 3 spot in the Hockey East tournament.

The environment said "playoff atmosphere" even if the game didn't play out like one.

The Catamounts' Brian Roloff scored early and often as he recorded a hat trick -- including the game-winner -- in an up-and-down 6-4 victory for UVM.

"I thought our urgency all over the ice on loose pucks was fantastic," UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. "This time of year, it's all about winning battles, winning races to loose pucks and getting pucks through.

"It's important for us, as a program and as a team, to develop down the stretch so that we can win the real close 1-0 game or a game that's a little bit more wide open."

The mood in the other dressing room was decidedly less wide open.

"We came in here wanting to play playoff hockey, and that's not what we did," UNH coach Dick Umile said in a cramped locker room under the stands. "If we play hockey like that in the playoffs, we're not going anywhere."

At least the Wildcats won't be going into the postseason on a losing note. On Saturday night at Gutterson, captain Greg Collins scored the OT winner at 3:44 to send UNH off with a 6-5 win and a third-place finish in Hockey East.

The mood on the bus ride back to Durham, N.H., was salvaged.

Saturday, March 7
CHESNUT HILL, Mass. -- The stakes were decidedly higher at Boston College's Conte Forum, but not for the home team.

The defending national champion Eagles were already assured of a sixth-place finish and their first road trip to start the Hockey East tournament since their last national-title defense.

Across the ice in the other dressing room, the Northeastern Huskies were poised to claim their first Hockey East regular-season championship. And after posting an improbable 2-1 OT win over BC on Friday night Matthews, it appeared destiny was on the Huskies' side.

Destiny turned out to be a tease.

It's unclear whether there was any leftover magic from a last-second BC basketball win over Georgia Tech earlier in the day in this same building, but something got in the way of Northeastern's wire-to-wire run to the title.

Maybe it was the senior night festivities (as a side note, full marks go to Huskies coach Greg Cronin for bringing his team out to sit on the bench and watch the seven BC players and two managers be recognized for their final appearance at Kelley Rink; BC's Jerry York did the same thing Friday night at Matthews).

Maybe it was Boston legend Rene Rancourt singing the Canadian and U.S. national anthems to the sold-out crowd of 7,884 during the Senior Night festivities.

Maybe it was John Gravallese and Tom Quinn whistling 78 minutes' worth of penalties to create a game without flow, although the officials can't be blamed for Northeastern's 1-for-10 performance with the man-advantage.

Or maybe Northeastern simply couldn't close the deal as BC scored two power-play goals during a second period in which a 1-1 tie turned into a 4-1 Eagles lead and the eventual final score.

"It stinks. To go from the start to the finish in first place and then to play like we did tonight," Cronin said. "Judging by their intensity and their execution, [BC] played like a team that was trying to win a championship and we played like a team that was stuck in sixth place. All the credit goes to them.

"It wasn't meant to be, I guess."

Despite the loss, Northeastern still had a chance to win the regular-season title if last-place Providence could register a Sunday matinee win at Boston University, the No. 1 team in the country.

When that point of faint hope was raised to Cronin by Boston Herald reporter John Connolly, the ultra-intense coach shot back with what might have been his first smile in weeks.

"You're the guy at the blackjack table with a dollar left at a dollar table and you've got two threes," Cronin said. "You're not going to win with that hand."

For Northeastern, it was no deal, and Cronin knew that destiny had already driven a few miles down Commonwealth Avenue to take up residence at BU.

With any luck, Cronin & Co. will get one more chance at the Terriers in the Hockey East championship on March 21, but that will be a long two weeks' wait to see if it materializes.

Sunday, March 8
BOSTON -- All you need to know about Providence College's chances at Boston University on the final day of Hockey East play is that the Friars' bus broke down on the Massachusetts Turnpike on the way to Agganis Arena.

Apparently divine intervention was out enjoying the spring-like weather around the Hub.

That would explain the 1,500 empty seats and lack of energy in the building when Luke Popko's shot from the left circle early in the first period gave the Terriers a 1-0 lead en route to a 3-0 final.

When it was over, Hockey East official Richard DeCaprio handed over the trophy to captains Matt Gilroy and John McCarthy for a quick and somewhat awkward skate around the ice. The Terriers have now won eight regular-season titles, but coach Jack Parker is much more interested in a seventh tournament title.

"A regular season championship is nice but you're not the Hockey East champion," Parker said. "The Hockey East champion is going to be decided in two weeks."

As of now, every other team is looking up at Boston University (27-5-4) as the playoffs begin. The Terriers hold down the top spot in the PairWise rankings and it's no wonder since BU is riding a 16-game unbeaten streak (13-0-3) and has lost only one game since late November.

The Terriers last won the Hockey East title in 2006, last appeared in a Frozen Four in 1997 and they haven't skated off with a national title since 1995.

"Everybody else in the nation will lose their last game except the team that wins the national championship," Parker said. "So it will be interesting to see how it all plays out."

The real journey is just beginning.

David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espncaa@gmail.com.