May 21, 2012

From NEHJ: Cross roads

By Adam Kaufman

TAMPA, Fla. — There are a number of components that go into winning a hockey championship. 

Boston College captain Tommy Cross and the Eagles parade with the NCAA championship trophy at a celebration on campus. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

A team needs a hot goaltender, shutdown defense and reliable scorers. It typically needs health and effective special teams play. And, naturally, a few breaks don’t hurt.

Then there’s the psychological side of winning.

As has been well-documented, the Boston College men’s hockey team finished the 2011-12 season with a 33-10-1 record — its fourth ever 30-plus win season and third under legendary coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) — and for the final 19 games, the Eagles were otherworldly, running the table on anyone and everyone who stood in their way en route to a fifth national championship and third in five years.

It’s often been written that a late-January sweep in Maine, which culminated a less-than-inspiring 6-9-1 stretch, was the turning point that propelled BC from what could have been a playoff-less season to immortality. It’s easy to see why. After getting outscored by the Black Bears 11-7 over the two games, the Eagles never lost again.

But, suppose that wasn’t really where things changed course?

“It’s convenient to say because that’s the last time we lost,” said associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh (North Andover, Mass.). “If you look at that weekend, I didn’t think we played great hockey, but we lost in overtime and we lost with a minute left, I think. The following weekend against UNH, we beat them in overtime and we win with a minute left, so they were pretty similar weekends, except one weekend we sweep and the other weekend we get swept.”

That doesn’t mean the turning point was that home-and-home set with the Wildcats, either. For the coaching staff, it wasn’t necessarily one specific game at all as much as the play of goalie Parker Milner (29-5-0, 3 shutouts, 1.66 goals-against-average, .937 save percentage) and the defensive execution in front of him.

For many players, however, there was a game, a moment where they knew their team wasn’t just good, but one that could accomplish something special.

“I think the BU win in the Beanpot kind of opened our eyes as to what we could do as a team,” said senior captain Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.), now a prospect in the Boston Bruins’ system, of the mid-February 3-2 overtime victory.

“Getting the chance to play in the championship game of the Beanpot against our rivals at BU,” freshman standout Johnny Gaudreau said, “they were ranked second in the country at the time, and we wanted to try to knock them out of there so we could get up there. Everyone played extremely well that game, from our four lines of offense to the defensive pairs and Parker Milner. All of us were right in line, and it was a really huge game for us.”

“I think if you look back, historically, you don’t win a national championship if you don’t win a Beanpot,” said junior center Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.), who has helped the Eagles to the last three of their 17 all-time Beanpot titles. “We won the Beanpot in 2008 and BU won it in 2009. We win it in 2010 and 2012, and all won the national championship. Obviously, you can do it, but for us, when you win a Beanpot, there’s so much momentum. I think when we were able to win that, we realized this team could be something special.” 

The Eagles begin to celebrate their victory over Ferris State for their third national title in five years. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

That win for the then-third-ranked Eagles hardly scratched the surface of special by itself. It was their fifth victory in a row on the way to 19, a stretch that involved a chase for home ice in the conference playoffs, a regular-season title, a Hockey East championship, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and then four of the toughest wins any team is ever asked to attain on the way to securing a Frozen Four crown.

To achieve even some of those goals, let alone all of them, required building on what happened between that trip to Maine and their Beanpot triumph.

“It was the mentally-tough part,” said Cross, who appeared in all 44 games for his team and posted career-bests with 24 points and 19 assists in his final season at The Heights. “From that point on, we talked all the time about sticking with our game plan, getting the lead and keeping the lead. Even if the game plan isn’t working right away, you gotta have patience and stick with it, hang around and eventually it’ll work for us.”

Fundamentally, the Eagles at their worst — still awfully good compared to most — weren’t getting pucks deep when necessary, Cavanaugh said. They were focused at times on one-on-one play, turnovers were bountiful and the players perhaps put too much attention on the pretty plays rather than banging home rebounds.

In short, they weren’t playing as a cohesive unit coming out of their trip north.

“I remember talking to Tommy walking back from practice that Monday,” Mullane said. “I said, ‘Where do we go? What do we do? What do we need?’ He said, ‘Pat, what do you think?’ I just said I think everyone needs to give a little bit more, myself included, and I said to Tommy, ‘You, too.’ I think we just kind of said everyone needs to buy in a little bit more. We were playing selfish hockey, and we recognized that. I don’t think the national championship was being sought after as much as it should have been by the guys, so we talked about how we could get everyone to be the best they could be.”

“We could have gone two ways,” Cross said, “either toward a .500 season with no trophies and maybe some good individual goals, or we could go the way we chose to go. 

BC goalie Parker Milner's hot streak backstopped the Eagles to their fifth national title all-time. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“We had guys on our team that easily could have looked at personal goals, and I’m so grateful to them that they didn’t,” he continued. “After Maine, (Chris) Kreider could have said, ‘My only goal is to get 30 goals,’ and (Brian Dumoulin) could have said, ‘I want to get 100 points as a defenseman in three seasons,’ and those were arguably our two best players and two of our biggest team guys. They couldn’t care less about the All-American stuff and the points they had; they just wanted to win.”

And win they did.

Amazingly, in fact, when the season ended, it seemed like the Eagles were still on the upswing after pounding Air Force, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota and Ferris State by a combined 16-2 margin in the NCAA tournament.

It has to make some wonder, with Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) and Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) leaving school early to turn pro, and Cross, Barry Almeida (Springfield, Mass.), Paul Carey (Weymouth, Mass.), Edwin Shea (Shrewsbury, Mass.) and other key contributors graduating, how long could the streak have continued?

“We think about that all the time,” admitted Mullane, who notched 39 points to nearly match the output of his first two years combined. “It was a special group of guys and one that you can’t replace. It was a group of guys coming together at the right time, Parker Milner getting extremely hot, and Johnny Gaudreau and Chris Kreider stepping up. We’re never gonna be on the ice together again, but I think it’s something we can look back on and say we did something that only a few other college teams ever did. That’s something that no one can take away from us.”

“As soon as the season ended, I was excited about winning a national championship and everything, but I was upset,” said Gaudreau, BC’s top rookie with 21 goals and 44 points. “We were on a 19-game winning streak, and I wanted to keep that going with that same exact team. I was hoping there would be more games after that we could play. That was such a special team, and it was really upsetting to not have just one more game after the championship.”

“We were playing pretty well and only getting better,” Cross said. “It would have been interesting to see (how long it would have lasted), but I’m glad we had it come to an end on our own terms. I said to Parker at the team banquet, ‘Who wins 19 games in a row? You’re not supposed to do that!’ It’s unheard of and we were playing really good hockey teams, especially in our league and the national tournament. It’s an unbelievable streak.

“As far as next year,” Cross continued, “games in October are hard to win, just like games in March and April. If Parker keeps playing well, I’d like to see if they can get off to a good start.”

Apparently when one’s mentality comes down to winning, even when the job is over, it’s not quite finished.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Adam Kaufman can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman.