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Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Hockey

Experience, emotion steamrolled stats for Eagles

Four weeks ago, dozens of rink-bound Friar Fanatics slithered up to the Boston College campus convinced that they had a weekend of slip-out-of-your-seat arm wrestling in store for the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals. The four passports to TD Banknorth Garden were still clearly anybody’s.

Such a proposition made sense for all that the database could tell you. It was a 4-5 seed matchup that was nearly booked for Schneider Arena instead of the Conte Forum. And even at that rate, the Friars had already charged up two wins at The Heights late in the regular season towards an eventual 2-0-1 season series triumph.

But now, as the Eagles lug the NCAA championship trophy back home from Denver, it should be plain to see as to why PC was knocked loose in such brisk fashion, authorizing gaping early leads en route to a pair of 5-1 falters. This is the explanation: with playoff air having settled, Jerry York’s hockey capstone students wasted no time dissociating themselves from Tim Army’s Intro. to Clutch class.

Afterwards, USCHO quoted Army as flexibly assessing, “Everybody expects to advance but we’re not quite there yet. We’re getting there and we’ll get there, but we have to learn how to play and how to play in a [playoff] environment.”

A week later, similar lessons were learned and similar sentiments expressed by the likes of Vermont, who made their first ever trek to the Hockey East final only to submit the crown to the Eagles, 4-0.

Bam! There’s your difference, right there. Whereas the Friars and Catamounts are not quite there, the Eagles have been there and beyond time and again. They had bagged two league playoff titles in three years and hustled into the national final in 2006 and 2007. But you don’t even need to break out the Memorex to recall the double-dose of vinegar York’s pupils still tasted at training camp. No program had had the nominal honor of back-to-back runners-up since the Denver Pioneers in 1964.

The defining characteristic of the 2007-08 Hockey East season was the unreliable weekly shift of lottery balls that were the ten member schools. When New Hampshire broke away from the pack to stamp first place, they stamped that claim on February 23 through a 5-1 thrashing of none other than the Eagles, who were an iffy 11-9-7 when the ice chips settled and the playoff bracket dried.

But all BC really needed to revive their unfulfilled hardware hunger was a veiled scolding after a 3-3 draw at basement-bound Maine in late January. York –who has had bench-based duties over Frozen Four weekend seven times in the previous ten years- reportedly said that evening, “I understand that Denver in the springtime is an outstanding place to be. We’re not going to be there as a team, and that’s the worst feeling for any college coach.”

Within seventeen days, the Eagles had usurped Boston University’s jealously guarded Beanpot. And the thawing process was making headway.

Where had Nathan Gerbe gone? Well, in all fairness, he had a grand total of 46 points after a 3-2 overtime falter to Northeastern on March 7 (the same night the Friars’ home ice hopes slipped away with a loss at BU). But that was the last of BC’s shortcomings and Gerbe’s silence.

Between the end of the regular season and Saturday’s title tilt, a nine game spread, Gerbe’s scoring transcript read 12-10-22, dubious penalty shot conversion against Ryan Simpson and all. On Saturday, he went 2-2-4 with a +8 rating while linemates Ben Smith and Brian Gibbons had 1-2-3 and 0-2-2 totals respectively.

How could anybody fill Cory Schneider’s hefty pads that backstopped the last two ventures to the national final? The bar scaled higher and the doubters kept slapping, but freshman John Muse snared every question mark and tossed them aside. In the process, he consumed every last second of game action while Gerbe and the rest of his praetorian guards –including equally instinctive classmate Joe Whitney- kept inserting the points. The cumulative goal differential in eight post-season games favored the Eagles, 38-13.

What about the syrupy debacle surrounding Brett Motherwell –who bolted for the bush leagues at mid-season- or the devastating injury to forward Brock Bradford? Well, it’s not like this program wasn’t trying to convert negative energy already. In fact, they took one more emotional dent early in the championship game when valuable bouncer Carl Sneep was cracked in the foot by a low flying slap shot.

At night’s end, however, the Eagles had broken their nagging fetters whilst thwarting the hopes of yet another aspirant juggernaut: Notre Dame.

But the Friars, Catamounts, and Irish can all gladly take this lesson for living from Boston College and Aerosmith alike: “You gotta lose to know how to win.”

Quick Feeds: Eliminating the Friars is becoming a positive omen for the Eagles. In 2001, the last time BC –or any eastern school- won the title, the Eagles launched their fast-track with a conference championship victory over PC. Current Bruin Chuck Kobasew was the tournament MVP…Now that the NCAA trophy is back on the Hockey East coast, PC is guaranteed to face the defending national champion for the third straight season. Last year, the Friars dropped in at the Badger Invitational, where the 2006 champion Wisconsin throttled them, 5-0. This season, they topped Michigan State, 5-3, in the consolation game of the Great Lakes Invitational…Denver has become a regular memory factory for Boston sports buffs. The Eagles title comes less than six months after the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the World Series. Not to mention, the Pepsi Center was the site of Bruins marvel Ray Bourque’s memorable valedictory game in 2001.

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