Myers: Boston College makes for a daunting Frozen Four foe
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Picture for a second the idea of the Lakers and the Celtics playing each other for the right to go to the NBA Finals. That might give you a little idea of the assembled riches that will be on the ice when two of college hockey's historical powers - Minnesota and Boston College - face each other in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals on April 5 in Tampa.
One team from Boston (like the Celtics), one team from Minneapolis (originally anyway, like the Lakers), multiple championships between them, and as many fans who despise them as the armies that will travel long distances to cheer them on.
"We're a good club," said plain-spoken Eagles coach Jerry York earlier this week, mastering the understatement regarding a team that last lost a game on Jan. 21. The Eagles were a pedestrian 14-10-1 then. Today they've rattled off 17 wins in a row, including a pair of shutouts over Air Force and defending champ Minnesota Duluth in last weekend's regional round. "We've gone from average to being a special team."
York, who played for BC long, long ago, will be looking for his third NCAA title since 2008, his fourth with the Eagles and his fifth as a college head coach. Just as Gophers coach Don Lucia had humble beginnings at Alaska and Colorado College, York cut his coaching teeth at Bowling Green, leading the Falcons to their only NCAA title in 1984.
Hulking New York Rangers forward Brian Boyle, in St. Paul to play the Wild this week, remarked how much fun he's having watching his alma mater make another run at the title. Boyle knew winning, and heartbreak, during his time in Chestnut Hill, as his junior and senior seasons ended with losses in the NCAA title game, to Wisconsin and Michigan State, respectively.
The 6-7 Boyle currently has a starring role with a brash and exciting Rangers team, for a franchise where there are eerie parallels to Boyle's college club. The Rangers famously won the Stanley Cup in 1940, and needed 54 years to win it again, last tasting NHL champagne in 1994. Similarly, BC won the second Frozen Four ever played, in Colorado Springs in 1949, then needed more than five decades to get another. The BC hockey boosters group is still known as the Pikes Peak Club, in honor of the Colorado mountain looming over the site of the school's first hockey title.
BC was a "good, not great" program in the mid-1990s when York returned to town, and almost immediately he got them back into national contention, but late-season heartbreak always seemed to follow the Eagles. In 1998, with a hugely partisan BC crowd on their side in the Boston Bruins' home rink, the Eagles fell to Michigan in overtime of the national title game. Two years later, just an hour down the road from their campus, in Providence, R.I., the Eagles led North Dakota 2-1 in the title game's third period with another raucous crowd (which included football hero Doug Flutie) cheering them on. It was mostly quiet by the game's end, as North Dakota rallied for a trio of goals in the final period to win 4-2. And the curse remained, at least for another 12 months.
The Eagles again met North Dakota for the title in 2001, in Albany, N.Y., and with a commanding 2-0 lead and less than five minutes to play, it seemed like it was finally BC's time. Then North Dakota coach Dean Blais made one of the bolder moves in Frozen Four history, lifting his goalie with more than four minutes on the clock, and watching his team score twice to force overtime. It seemed all but inevitable that another Eagles collapse was coming any second. Instead, Krys Kolanos, stuffed a puck between the skates of North Dakota goalie Karl Goehring, ending the game, the season, and the 52-year title drought that had gripped BC.
York claimed his second NCAA title for his alma mater in 2008, beating the Gophers in the regional round, then storming past Notre Dame 4-1 in Denver for the crown. Two years later, in the capper of the NCAA's failed experiment with the "stadium" Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit, the Eagles cruised past Wisconsin 5-0 for their third NCAA title in a decade.
In the coach's mind, last season's Eagles were even better than the 2008 and 2010 teams, but they were upended in the opening 2011 NCAA tournament game. BC scored just 19 seconds into the meeting with Colorado College, then surrendered eight goals in an inglorious and abrupt end to the season. John Muse, the goalie who had backstopped the Eagles to a pair of NCAA titles, ended his college career on the bench, pulled in favor of backup Parker Milner.
This season Milner has held the job since day one, sparking the Eagles to a Hockey East title and another Frozen Four run. His coach, York, has a friendly manner, speaking optimistically in a thick New England accent, where the name of his team's Frozen Four foe gets twisted into "Minn-ah-so-der" now and then.
Gophers forward Zach Budish admitted this week that watching a rival like Minnesota Duluth win the title last season was difficult, and one of the team's primary goals in 2011-12 was to "take over the state of Minnesota again." Likewise, the Eagles' seniors had to end their freshman seasons by watching crosstown rival Boston University win the 2009 NCAA title, so they'd like nothing more than to end their college careers with a second set of championship rings.
York reinforces those simple, yet lofty goals: be good citizens, respect their school's tradition, be the best team in Boston, win games, and gather hardware.
"The mission of a college hockey team is to collect significant trophies," York said this week. "And there's none shinier than the one they're going to present a week from Saturday."
In roughly a week, the Eagles and Gophers will spend 60 minutes (or more) on a rink in Florida to determine whether it's college hockey's Lakers or Celtics playing for that shiny gold trophy.