The Northeastern Huskies know the feeling of falling one victory shy of winning the Beanpot all too well.
They endured that agony for the fourth time in the last six years on Monday at TD Garden, falling by a score of 4-1 to a Boston College team that's stood in their way of that ever-elusive, drought-busting win in three of the last four championship games.
On paper, there may have been times since their last Beanpot title (1988) that the Huskies have come closer to glory than they did on Monday, with a 3-2 loss in overtime to BU back in 2005 serving as a shining example. But in their 2014 clash with the Eagles, there's no denying that the coveted trophy was there for the taking.
The Huskies outplayed the top-ranked team in the nation for the majority of the first two periods, which included a 16-shot effort in the opening frame. A Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) goal put NU in an early hole midway through that first period, but they kept pushing, thanks largely to a tremendous effort in the neutral zone that stifled BC's breakout time and time again.
Meanwhile, goaltender Clay Witt -- as he's done all season for the Huskies -- stood on his head, making countless highlight-reel-worthy stops, including a jaw-dropping blocker save on freshman forward Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.).
“I thought he played fabulous,” Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) said. “I thought both goalies played really well. Clay gave us a chance to win. ... He’s given us a chance to win all year long.”
When the Huskies were able to tie the game up late in the second period on a tally from John Stevens, all of their efforts throughout the contest seemed like they were about to pay off.
But over the final 20 minutes, the Eagles were the team to seize the moment. Northeastern failed to convert a power-play opportunity early in the third, and from there, BC took over.
"In the third period, we just couldn't match their speed. They came at us, and we didn't have a correct enough response," Madigan said.
Boston College broke the tie with 5:30 to go in regulation, as captain Patrick Brown -- who'd been knocked down in front of Witt's crease -- redirected a shot while laid out on the ice that managed to elude the NU netminder. The Eagles' empty-netter from Johnny Gaudreau with a little over a minute to go put the game out of reach, and Brown's second tally of the period with 50 seconds remaining made what was an incredibly competitive contest look lopsided.
The Huskies couldn't help but reflect on all their missed chances throughout the championship game. They had an early goal by Ryan Belonger waved off, as an NU player knocked the net off just a second before the puck crossed the goal line. A similar sequence came later when BC goalie Thatcher Demko appeared to slide back behind the goal line while in possession of the puck, but it was ruled that the whistle had already blown.
On top of those close calls, NU also had to live with failing to come through on three power plays -- which was three more man-advantage opportunities than the Eagles were given. There were posts, there were shots that missed by the narrowest of margins, and there were plenty of quality stops from Demko, who captured the Eberly Trophy after finishing with the second-best save percentage in the history of the tournament at .966.
"When it comes to big games like this, it's all the little plays," senior Braden Pimm said. "You've just got to bear down and make sure finish the opportunities. We had the chances, but we just couldn't bear down to get one by."
For Madigan, there was plenty of pride, but he couldn't resist lamenting how the game turned so heavily in BC's favor during the third period, as the Eagles outshot the Huskies 16-6 over the final 20 minutes of play.
"I like the way our team played. We competed hard," he said. "They battled for the whole game. Through two periods, I liked where we were. .... We just couldn't generate the offense."
All the Huskies can do now is regroup and focus on the stretch run.
"We've got another rabbit to chase," Madigan said. "We were chasing the Beanpot rabbit and (now) we're chasing a Hockey East playoff opportunity. So, we'll take a day off here and get ready for UMass on Saturday."
With a record of 8-6-1 in league play, Northeastern is in third place in the standings behind UMass-Lowell and Boston College. Pimm talked about looking forward, including toward an opportunity to win another tournament the Huskies haven't captured since -- of course -- 1988.
"We've got a great team, we're resilient," said Pimm. "We'll go back to work, look forward and look forward to trying to get back here for the Hockey East playoffs."
If they do reach that stage, reigning supreme in Hockey East would go a long way toward healing all these years of Beanpot heartache.