Thursday, March 20, 2014

15 years on: BC-UNH Hockey East final still reverberates

It was real. And it was spectacular

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Almost four hours after it began, and more than an hour after it ended, fans decked out in Maroon and Gold clogged the back-to-back outbound trolleys from North Station. They sidled up to one another on the inside until reaching maximum capacity and shouting the victorious alma mater with maximum volume and tone-deafness until the windows became fogged on the interior.

The wait was of no consequence. It was Saturday night and the party would spill over into a thousand different places. Standing on the chilly above-ground platform, exposed to the bone-chilling New England air, wouldn't mute the feeling.

A short time before, many of the 14,278 in attendance at Fleet Center on Causeway Street in Boston who supported their emerging hockey program poured out of the stands and into the train station having seen the Boston College Eagles topple the New Hampshire Wildcats by a 5-4 count in an overtime thriller.

Blake Bellefeuille capped a mad contest which saw 112 total shots on goal by beating Ty Conklin at the 6:58 mark of the extra session, thanks to a pass from freshman defenseman Brooks Orpik, who smartly foiled a Wildcats break out and kept the puck alive along the boards.

Jerry York's kids pulled off their second straight Hockey East playoff title "upset" and launched themselves into an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Though fate and the selection committee would be unkind the next afternoon and sent them off to Madison, Wisconsin to begin their quest for a championship, in the moment there was only jubilation.

I was there and I reveled with my hockey-loving brothers and sisters, who were suddenly not-too-cool-for-school to let loose in an appropriate off-campus setting. I lost my voice that night, but not the memories. Despite having turned 21 more than two months before, I took a rebel stand. Unclouded by a steady stream of alcohol which was finally a legal right, the play button on the tape recorder embedded in the gray matter has been waiting to be pushed for a moment like this.

These high-octane clubs played each other to a draw in the regular season, 1-1-1. UNH ripped BC 6-1 at the Whittemore Center in early December, then dropped a 6-3 decision in Conte Forum the next night. A 2-2 tie in Chestnut Hill followed in late February.

The Eagles set down UMass-Lowell in two straight to end the quarterfinals, then squeaked by a tough Maine squad (which eventually won the national title), 3-2, in Friday's semifinal. The Wildcats saw two close victories to open their postseason against Merrimack, then took care of Providence with ease, 6-2, in the other semi.

Then, the "road team" went out and punctured Ty Conklin four times in the opening 20 minutes to seize control. Jeff Farkas opened the scoring just 2:22 after the opening faceoff, then measured Conklin on the power play at 8:23 for his 30th and 31st goals of the season. Bellefeuille continued the fusillade with 5:35 left in the period, and though future Hobey Baker Award winner Jason Krog put UNH on the board 81 seconds later, grinders Kevin Caulfield and Tony "The Hammer" Hutchins teamed up to make it 4-1 at 17:33.

If the Shermanator was asked to assess BC's chances of running away with it, he'd have quipped "confidence is high."

Shocking? You bet. BC had only scored as many as four goals in the first period once all season -- on Devils' Night in a 7-3 rout of UMass-Lowell at home -- and to do it when the pressure's on, you could sense something big and special on the horizon. Having packed on the junior 15 in the Spring semester due to pounding beers four out of seven days in the week, I was getting a badly-needed cardio workout to boot. All four goals were scored at my end of the ice, as the balcony seat was situated where the Eagles would attack twice. My hind quarters were spring loaded from the start.

As if the 38 shots weren't enough, in addition to the goals, Conklin, Scott Clemmensen, the BC offense and action after the whistle combined to cause us to leap out of our seats on a half-dozen other occasions. The cheers grew louder and the high-fives bloomed exponentially until they were taken in a 360-degree panorama and left greater stings on the fingers with each red light.

But the horizon betrayed us. When what lay beyond was revealed, the Wildcats stole the momentum completely and eventually struck to tie the game. Before the second period was five minutes old, it was 4-3 on goals by UNH 10 seconds apart. The lumps in the throats got bigger when Conklin and Clemmensen were forced to make saves on clean breakaways that everybody rise to their feet regardless of affiliation. Deals with deities were being struck silently by the thousands due to a nerve-fraying one-goal title game. I had a few four-letter oaths of my own, alternately praising and cursing a being I wasn't sure lived beyond the maze of steel and wire and fabric hanging below the arena roof.

As they had so many times in the last two seasons under York, BC started playing not to lose. They were almost five minutes from escaping unscathed when unkown frosh Johnny Rogers scored and this bat-shit crazy game, whose shots read 50 for New Hampshire and 49 for Boston College after 60 minutes, slipped into a sudden-death fourth period tied at 4-4.

The schools were ranked 1-2 in total offense, with UNH eventually sporting 171 goals and BC one fewer on the year, so it didn't look like things would remain deadlocked for very long. Bellefeuille worked his magic before seven minutes elapsed, earning tournament MVP honors, and at least one half of the invading hordes had a tale that would last a lifetime.
Mike Mottau, Brendan Buckley, York and Chris Masters with the spoils

In the immediate afterglow there was a feeling of serenity, of certainty, of time and money not wasted and emotional investment paying off seven times seven fold.

All was well. Even the piercing punctuations of the school's pep bands -- which proved to be the single most annoying facet of the college game-watching experience in more intimate settings -- couldn't harsh the buzz.

If there's anything to the concept of karma, it was beautiful payback for what was robbed from me and 39,999 other souls who witnessed Notre Dame's referee-aided goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter of its win at Alumni Stadium in the first Saturday of the previous November. We were dead certain Mike Cloud crossed the goal line on 3rd-and-1 to give BC the stunning victory, but he was denied by suspicious ruling and then stopped well behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down to deflate the hopeful who locked arms in dire expectation.

We drank well that night, welcoming Fighting Irish fans around our quarter keg, in the kitchen of someone's off-campus basement apartment, forgiving but not forgetting. We drank to excess on this night once securely back on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, throats sore and hearts full. I know the players did, and if you want to know what happened in Matt Mulhern's mod and what the Hockey East trophy was really used for, I'll be happy to disclose that in an open-air no-public location of your choosing.

For their part, the Eagles exorcised some overtime demons and removed some psychic scars with the statement victory. Only 11 months before on that same ice, many of the same players were stunned by Josh Langfeld's goal late in overtime to give Michigan a 3-2 victory and its second NCAA title in the last three seasons. Just over a month before, they'd let a 2-1 lead evaporate into a 3-2 OT defeat at the hands of bitter rival Boston University in a Beanpot first-round contest.

You think of how many players from those teams made it into the NHL. It's overwhelmingly tilted towards Boston College (Brian Gionta, Farkas, Bellefeuille, Mottau, Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Bobby Allen, Jeff Giuliano, Clemmensen), but UNH boasted someone who would become one of the AHL's top career scorers (Krog) and a journeyman goaltender who snagged a bit of history by playing in the NHL's first three outdoor games (Conklin).

Over the last two years at The Heights, I had class with half these jokers, so, back in the confines of higher learning come the following Monday, there was no more fanboy stuff.  Yeah, they'd scam for help and yeah, I gave it to them. In my senior year, I snagged a broadcast spot on student-run WZBC (your home for action) and started taking the games more seriously in preparation for a career in broadcasting.

The best way to go out as a fan is as a winner. Fifteen years later, it still feels great.

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