This was probably the worst game the BC Eagles have played in a month.
And they won 6-1.
Boston College entered this NCAA tournament as the hottest team in the country and has done nothing to dissuade those who believed it would walk straight through whatever opponents were unfortunate enough to fall at its feet on the way to the national title game.
Air Force put up a noble fight but in the end succumbed to a team no one seems capable of refusing. Minnesota-Duluth was bent to BC coach Jerry York's malevolent will the next night.
And now Minnesota, poor Minnesota. It's almost cruel that BC gave them some measure of hope in this game. Yes, the Eagles roared out of the gate, as the line of Steven Whitney, Barry Almeida and Flames prospect Bill Arnold shredded the Minnesota defense on a brilliant odd-man rush for a Whitney goal and BC lead at 6:03 of the first, but that, like punching a bully in the nose, only seemed to anger the Gophers.
Minnesota rained shots on BC netminder Parker Milner, who was brilliant in this one in ways that he wasn't often asked to be this season, and dominated possession. Though the scoreboard through one period read 1-0 to the top team in the nation, anyone who watched the game would have said it should have been at least tied, and probably tilted in the Gophers' favor, with shots standing at 10-5.
That trend continued into the second period, as Minnesota drew a penalty just two minutes in and once again opened fire on Milner. Shots through the first 26 minutes or so stood at 15-6; and, frankly, that might have even flattered the Eagles.
Maybe it's that I see these guys play a dozen or more times a season, but so skilled is this Boston College team — which has been to five national title games in the last seven seasons, winning the last two in which it has appeared — and battle-hardened and reliable and outright exceptional that one never quite got the impression that any of this pressure was especially troubling.
Not that the Eagles could have been happy with it, but they also probably spent the majority of their time on the bench waiting for the moment to come when they could break the game open.
Much like the earlier semifinal, that moment came on an early second-period penalty, when Nate Schmidtt got busted for hooking at 6:27. On the ensuing faceoff, BC's Kevin Hayes lined up across from Minnesota captain Taylor Matson, won the draw back to Bruins draft pick Tommy Cross, who got it over to Whitney, who got it back to Hayes, who sniped the far upper 90 to make it 2-zip BC. In the space of eight seconds, just like that.
Yet still, Minnesota persisted. Apparently the Gophers didn't get the memo from the hockey gods that allowing BC to stake itself to a 2-0 lead is a death sentence, and they continued to pressure Milner and BC's second-in-the-nation defense. But if the game wasn't over on Hayes' eventual game-winner, it surely was when, after the ice evened out a bit for much of the remainder of the second period, Milner made another red-light stop right out front on Jake Hansen, which prompted Erik Haula to punch the glass in frustration.
If the Milner save wasn't the symbolic end to the game, the BC goal that followed just 22 seconds later surely was. He'll-be-a-New-York-Ranger-this-time-Saturday Chris Kreider salted the game away on a beauty two-on-one goal with Destry Straight, his 23rd of the season, and with just 2:15 left in the second period. Paul Carey's insurance-on-the-insurance marker with 17 ticks left didn't help matters either.
Things got testy, as they tend to do in situations such as these, in the third. Hansen finally solved Milner just 1:26 into the period — shattering the goalie's shutout streak at a staggering 193:39 — and Carey answered with his second of the night 22 seconds later (yes, again). Then tempers flared even more soon after Brian Dumoulin added BC's sixth, with Matson taking a baseball swing at Billy Arnold, then punching him in the face. Minnesota's Nate Condon got five and the gate for contact to the head, which is a weird kind of penalty in college hockey reserved mainly for when roughing or elbowing or high sticking just isn't severe enough a call.
BC wiled away the remaining nine or so minutes without much happening, and that was likely because no one wanted to get hurt or suspended for Saturday's national title game.
The Eagles have now won — get this — 18 games in a row, and have trailed opponents during that streak for a combined total of — get this — 5:33. This is terrifying efficiency in all areas of the ice, and you might have been able to brush that off as a run of games against weaker opponents at one point, but now look. Duluth and Minnesota, the two best offenses in the country, were all but silenced by the smothering Eagle defense. The one goal it allowed deflected off a stick blade and a skate at the top of the crease. Both opponents also boasted strong defenses, and both found them dismantled to the tune of 10 total goals against.
If this is the best NCAA hockey has to offer in the way of competition for the Boston College Eagles, other teams might want to start thinking about putting together an all-star team in hopes of edging them out.
Perhaps, though, this conclusion is logical. Ferris State, which won the earlier semifinal, has long been framed as an immovable object, well-coached in its defensive systems and resolute in sticking to them come what may. And no matter how many times since the beginning of February it has been asked to prove it, BC has always emerged as the embodiment as the irresistible force.
Schmit finds a way for Ferris in defensive slugfest
Believe it or not, there are people who prefer 2-1 games to those that finish 5-4.
There's a lot to be said for quality, staunch defensive hockey and that often gets lost in the shuffle when leagues the world over seem so intent on driving offense with gimmick penalties like the puck over the glass and dumb rules like the trapezoid.
And entering this first game of the biggest weekend in college hockey, in which Union was slated to face Ferris State, with both making their first appearances in the Frozen Four, defensive hockey was all but assured. Union was the best defensive hockey team in the country entering the game, allowing just 1.8 goals per game. Ferris was fifth at 2.17.
So it should be no surprise at all that the final score was 3-1 with an empty-net goal, though Ferris was the one that emerged victorious, and will go on to play David against the Goliath of BC.
But the difference between defensive hockey — in which the defense is used to power the offense and can be just as entertaining as a shootout — and what was turned out this afternoon in Tampa cannot be overstated.
There is a term in European soccer for teams who play the style seen in this game: "anti-football." This is, you might expect, not a term that's slung around with a lot of good feeling. That is to say, it's football only in the loosest sense of the word: everyone's wearing all the right equipment and that's what the ticket says, but the offender's goal isn't to play the sport, but rather to prevent the other team from doing so. Both teams actively engaged in this practice throughout.
The official shots in the game wrapped up 37-28 in favor of the Bulldogs, but I'm not sure who, exactly, started keeping them after the first period. Shots through 20 were 7-6 Ferris, and that sounded just about right after both teams put on shot-blocking clinics that would make John Tortorella scratch his head in amazement. By game's end, Ferris blocked 22 shots to Union's 20.
After that, the box score would have you believe the offenses exploded: 17 in the second for Ferris to Union's 13, and 13 in the third to the Dutchmen's nine. But when the game is this tight defensively, it is always the mistakes that prove costly.
It's true that the game opened up a bit more as it progressed, as there were no penalties called in the opening 27 minutes, and five power plays after that. In fact, it was on just such an occasion that the game itself seemed to hinge.
Union's Daniel Carr opened the scoring by redirecting a point shot from Greg Coburn past Taylor Nelson at 7:56 of the second period. The Dutchmen, at that point, seemed to be running the show. Their stellar netminder, Troy Grosenick, had been asked to make just two stops in 476 seconds, and his teammates got in the way of three more. That was it for Ferris' attempts, compared to 15 for Union, and draws were 9-2.
But just 21 seconds after the goal, Union defenseman Ryan Forgaard took the first penalty of the game. Whatever momentum Union, a team that can choke the life out of an opponent with the best of them, might have had from the moments preceding Carr's 20th of the season, it was wiped away with a single, unnecessary trip. And though Ferris didn't score on that first power play, it put the game on a considerably more even footing, and the Bulldogs tilted the ice in the other direction.
A second Union penalty proved to be more fortuitous for the CCHA regular-season champs. Aaron Schmit slammed home a rebound at the side of the net with only 2:58 remaining in the period, and the rest of the way, it was more or less all Ferris. From the start of that first power play earlier in the period through to the second intermission, they overmatched Union, outshooting the ECAC league champions 15-6.
But even as the Bulldogs poured on the pressure in the third period, they were having considerable difficulties finding a way past Grosenick, as most of his opponents have this season. Even a pretty clean breakaway for Schmit with 6:25 remaining wasn't good enough, as Grosenick kicked out a toe at the last second to deny him on the best single chance for any team all night.
Later, it was Kyle Bonis, the best player on the ice by far in this one, and the guy who set up Schmit's goal, who pushed his team ahead The junior scored his team's second rebound goal of the game, this time from a low-angle shot from the left by Brett Wysopel that Grosenick uncharacteristically — and, for him, unfortunately — kicked way out to the right wing, but directly onto Bonis' backhand. He had about 22 square feet of net to shoot at.
That one came with only 4:43 to go, and if a team that singularly committed to preventing the other team from doing anything of note offensively has that little time remaining to grind out a win, it will do so with aplomb. Schmit added the empty-netter with 54 seconds remaining.
The teams entered with the promise of a stalwart and terminally boring defensive game, which you might expect from two newcomers to this level of national prestige. Both were deathly afraid to make mistakes, and in the end, the one that made the fewest emerged victorious. Sounds just about right, but that style was conducive to either team being successful given their opponents.
If the Bulldogs want to have any hope of winning the national title at all, they won't be able to let BC come to them.
1. Aaron Schmit, Ferris State forward
Two goals in the national semifinals isn't a bad way for a captain to start wrapping up what had previously been a six-goal senior season. His now-eight-goal senior season is a career best in both points and goals. This was, I swear to you, the first two-point game of the guy's entire career.
2. Paul Carey, Boston College forward
He had two goals, and yes they came relatively late in the game, to extend BC's lead to 4-0 and 5-1, respectively. But the menace provided by the chemistry between he and his linemates — Johnny Gaudreau and Pat Mullane — brought throughout the game was more than a little unnerving to the neutral observer and, one supposes, to Minnesota partisans as well.
3. Parker Milner, Boston College goaltender
When the Gophers were able to create some thunder and even a little bit of lightning, Milner was the rock under which the Eagles huddled in resignation, knowing the storm would pass, and hoping it would do so sooner rather than later. Though he allowed his first goal since early in the second period of a game on March 18, he stopped 30 others, a good number of them of the Grade-A variety.