Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Drive For Five Was Realized

by mh82
“That wasn’t a hockey game out there tonight.
That was something different.”
Coach Jack Parker, following BU’s 8-7 loss to Northern Michigan
in triple overtime in the 1991 NCAA final.

Not even the sight of players in white jerseys with scarlet trim gathering in a euphoric mass against the glass was convincing enough. At least not right away. Had it all really played out in such a dramatic manner, or was this just pushing the bounds of reality?

The mood swing in the building and plot twist on the ice were almost too much to comprehend. Just over a week has passed and yet it’s still hard to believe the sudden turn of events that unfolded on the ice at the Verizon Center on a wild Saturday night in Washington. Even the victors admitted as such over three days later.

Less than an hour before the game’s conclusion, I had sat in front of the TV feeling a sense of disappointment for the players and coaches, resigned to the fact that after carefully carving out a season's worth of accolades (with accompanying trophies as proof) by answering the bell with big win after big win, perhaps the final step to the peak of the NCAA hockey mountain just wasn’t meant to be for this 2008-09 BU hockey team, one that had already tied the single-season school record of 34 victories. Was this going to add up to another frustrating NCAA Championship Game loss, the school’s fourth since 1991?

The worthy opponent in red jerseys, Miami University, a team that had given eventual NCAA champion Boston College all it could handle in the 2008 tournament before falling in overtime to the Eagles, had been every bit as tough as anticipated. The RedHawks were playing physically (seeing BU’s Colin Wilson knocked on his back was not a typical sight), with determination, and with a thorough focus on taking care of business in their own zone, and it was looking highly unlikely that Miami was going to let a two-goal lead slip slide away – especially with the school's first national championship in any sport just within reach.

All it was going to take to drive the final stake in BU's otherwise exemplary season was sending the puck into an empty BU net, helping the RedHawks atone for coming up empty in seven power play attempts against the Terriers’ persistent penalty kill.

But despite the offensive jump that Miami had shown, and the constant defensive pressure and rattling body checks the RedHawks had delivered, they weren’t able to put the game far enough out of reach. They maintained a 3-1 lead as the final 90 seconds of the championship game ticked away, but the door was left ever-so-slightly ajar, instead of being slammed shut.

That's when this gritty group of top-ranked Terriers, as they had been doing all through their run through the 2009 postseason, reached deep and made one last push, creating an improbable Alcoa Fantastic Finish of their own while earning a place in NCAA Frozen Four lore. It was an ending that would leave the RedHawks and their supporters numb and BU fans in the Verizon Center and those gathered around TV sets in a state fluctuating somewhere between shock and outright elation, all while breathing in that sweet smell of burning timber down by the water. There are memorable rallies, and there are memorable rallies, but this one was barely on the radar before it suddenly began to take shape.

The first domino fell when BU drew to within 3-2 just inside the final minute. With six skaters on the ice and the Terrier cage wide open, Nick Bonino’s shot attempt from the side of the net was denied. Just another routine save and another step closer to an NCAA crown for the hungry RedHawks, right? Not exactly. Bonino had the presence of mind to follow up his shot with a heady play, stealing the puck away from Miami defenseman Cameron Schilling, who had corralled the rebound and was preparing to clear the puck out of harm’s way.

Instead of looking to fire away again, however, Bonino pushed the puck ahead to brawny teammate Zach Cohen – whose presence on the ice on the Terriers’ extra-attacker unit was a rare sight – stationed at the left side of the crease. Cohen’s quick backhander looked as though he was pitching hay, but the extra mustard he put on the shot caused the puck to carom off the top of Miami goalie Cody Reichard’s right pad, under and through his right arm and into the net. It was a shot that produced such an unexpected trajectory that even Willie Mosconi would've been impressed. The goal pumped some much-needed life into the Terriers, both on the ice and the bench, along with their followers in the stands. It also allowed hope to enter into the equation for Coach Jack Parker’s club, something that had been slowly fading as the game clock wound toward zero.

The RedHawks could still have ended this whole drama. That empty net was still there. Just one good defensive play, a turnover followed by the flick of the wrist, and it would all be over. Just like North Dakota’s Adam Calder had done with 13 seconds left in the 1997 NCAA title game in Milwaukee, securing the Fighting Sioux’s 6-4 win over the Terriers that snuffed out a BU rally in the final minute.

Not so for Miami.

Dogged BU soon regained possession after the faceoff, goalie Kieran Millan once again headed for the bench, and play resumed in the Miami zone. That’s when veteran smarts took over, with playmaker Chris Higgins opting to pass the puck not out to the point, but instead threading it onto the stick of walk-on turned Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy in the slot. Higgins made the right decision; the poised senior defenseman was not the guy Miami wanted to see with the puck. Gilroy drove left around a defender looking for a possible shot, but he still had three bodies (including Jason Lawrence entangled with a defenseman near the left post) and the goalie in front of him, with the scoreboard clock showing less than 20 seconds left in BU’s season.

Given the gravity of the moment and the desperation of the clock situation, it would've been understandable for Gilroy to shoot the puck on net, hoping to somehow sneak it into the net through all the traffic, or perhaps for a deflection off the goalie, and amidst all the chaos in front of the net caused by the loose puck, a rebound through the scrum and the tying goal.

But All-Americans and Hobey Baker winners don't think that way. Shooting the puck and risking the loss of possession and the game wasn’t an option for Gilroy, not with a national championship hanging in the balance. What he wanted was to make the best play, preferably by getting the puck to an open shooter. When he spotted Bonino out of the corner of his eye, open and positioned perfectly inside the right circle, he calmly shifted the puck to his backhand and passed it across the slot.

Knowing he had little time to pull the trigger at the open net, Bonino one-timed a shot that would’ve made former Terrier Mark Fidler proud, sending the puck flying by a lunging Miami defenseman and just past Reichard’s outstretched glove (this time there would be no Bill Pye to rob a streaking Tony Amonte, as had been the case in the waning seconds of the third period of BU’s 8-7 triple-overtime loss to Northern Michigan in the 1991 NCAA title match) and securely into the twine to knot the score at 3-3 with 17 seconds left. The red light sent BU fans in the building into pandemonium and induced more than a few leaps off couches by alumni watching on the tube. It was a play that would’ve likely invited a drawn out “ohhhh myyyyy” from former NBC sportscaster Dick Enberg.

"I just got the puck and out of the corner of my eye I saw Nick sitting wide open. You put the puck on Nicky's stick, and he's going to put it away,” said Gilroy of his nifty pass. “It went in and we went into overtime. Once we had that, I think the whole bench and the whole team knew it [the championship] was ours."

When Parker was asked what he was thinking when Bonino’s shot lit the lamp, he mentioned former Red Sox player Bernie Carbo. That was in reference to the two-out, pinch-hit three-run home run that Carbo hit into the center field bleachers at Fenway Park against Cincinnati in the bottom of the eighth inning of the classic Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, a game the Sox eventually won 7-6 on Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 12th inning.

With BU players celebrating on the bench and sensing a comeback victory had essentially moved back into the picture, it was a good time to cue up the 1980s Mike and The Mechanics song “All I Need is a Miracle” which is just what the Terriers had produced in a game-saving space of 42 seconds.

Stunned by the two-goal rally but determined to finish the job, Miami had one last rush up ice that resulted in a Trent Vogelhuber – who had scored to put Miami up 3-1 at 15:52 of the third period on a laser inside the post, a goal that at the time appeared to be the potential game-clincher for the RedHawks – shot off BU goalie Kieran Millan’s chest, with the puck dangerously dropping loose to his left. Another Miami player swooped in for the rebound and took a swipe at the puck that barely missed before Millan was finally able to cover it up with his glove, just 1.1 second (and yet another heart palpitation for BU fans) from end of regulation.

When the horn sounded it was time to exhale, regroup and head to overtime for the 13th time in NCAA title game history. An overtime (or two, or three) that would determine if a stunned Miami team could still capture its first Division I title or if the resurgent Terriers could cap off a record-breaking season by completing the D.C. Miracle.

Playing it safe and waiting for a mistake was but a myth for both teams in overtime; both were out to win the championship trophy at all costs.

Colin Wilson, who had scored the third period game-winner off a rebound in BU’s 5-4 comeback win over Vermont in an NCAA Semifinal two nights before, fought through a check along the boards and sent a hard wrister on net, only to be stopped by Reichard. John McCarthy, finishing off a trademark tic-tac-toe passing exchange, was also foiled in close by Reichard.

At the other end, Gilroy made one of the game’s clutch defensive plays, sliding along the ice and extending his stick to break up a shot attempt in the slot by the dangerous Carter Camper. A short time later, Tom Wingels, who had given Miami a 2-1 lead in the third period by knocking in a loose rebound, took a shot in the slot that bounded off Millan’s chest and off to the side of the net. Before a Miami player could cause any further havoc BU defenseman Brian Strait promptly gained possession and cleared the puck out of the zone.

The final rush of the night found defenseman Colby Cohen starting out from behind the BU net and heading up ice. Cohen shot the puck deep into the Miami zone from center ice where the Terriers’ all-freshman line was in pursuit. Corey Trivino tied up a Miami player at the end boards to the left of the net, and the puck then skidded over to Chris Connolly, who had put the Terriers on the board way back in the first period by hustling for a goalmouth tap-in.

Connolly turned and passed the puck back to mouthguard-chomping defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, positioned on the left side of the blue line. Shattenkirk moved to his right and faked a shot to draw the attention of converging Miami defenders. After faking the shot he continued moving to his right along the blue line, passing by defensive partner and fellow Colorado Avalanche draft pick Cohen. With Miami players in pursuit Shattenkirk took a quick glance over his shoulder and sent a backhand pass over to Cohen. That misdirection opened up some room as Cohen skated in the direction of the left circle. Earlier in the game Cohen had cleanly beaten Reichard with one of his trademark booming slap shots, but the puck didn’t find the net and instead hit iron.

With some open space in the circle Cohen again drew back for a slapper, looking to put a shot on net while forward Vinny Saponari was busy tussling with a defenseman in front of Reichard. As Reichard dropped down and braced himself to control a hard shot from Cohen, Miami’s heart-and-soul defenseman, Kevin Roeder, hit the ice, looking to block the shot.

The puck made contact with Roeder’s shin guard, but instead of hitting flush and deflecting back toward Cohen, or better yet, to the boards, it hit on an angle and skipped off in flight on an end-over-end arc. Reichard kept waiting and looking for the shot that never arrived, as the puck climbed up and over his head and out of sight – calling to mind those Elton John lyrics “When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?” – before dropping over his left shoulder and into the net.

The goal judge flicked the switch, the BU bench emptied to mob Cohen, Parker and his assistants Mike Bavis and David Quinn embraced, Terrier fans roared and a crestfallen Reichard slumped in his crease, a helpless bystander who had lost sight of the puck on the game’s final play. Suddenly and unexpectedly (as is often the case in overtime) it was all over at 11:47 of the extra session. BU had completed a 4-3 return-from-the-brink victory, its first win of the season in OT, that secured the school’s fifth national championship. Unlike previous NCAA Tournament overtime losses in 1991 against Northern Michigan, 1998 against UNH and 2000 against St. Lawrence, the sticks and helmets scattered around the ice following the postgame celebration this time belonged to the Terriers, with Cohen’s shot igniting the flotilla.

“I saw a guy coming at me, and I thought about trying to fake and go around him, but the ice was already a little chewed up at that point,” Cohen said of his game winner. “I closed my eyes and shot it and here we are right now. I was just trying to shoot it towards the net. Take a slap shot and get it to the net and hope for a rebound. But I got lucky, I guess.”

Parker had nothing but praise for the vanquished RedHawks.

“We’ll sit back and watch this game and realize just how fortunate we were to win and how hard Miami played against us for 60 minutes,” he said. “They’re a hell of an opponent and everybody knows who they are now.”

Down through the years the Terriers have staged numerous memorable comebacks, both in the regular season (including against Michigan State at Walter Brown Arena in 1989 and on the road at Maine in 1993) and in the playoffs (against Clarkson in the ECAC semifinals in 1977 and against Northern Michigan in the NCAAs in 1991), but never before had a BU team staged such a memorable rally against such huge odds in the final 59 seconds.

Trying to determine the biggest win in the history of a tradition-rich program is all but impossible, but there certainly has never been a more courageous victory – even edging ahead of the one posted by underdog BU against a loaded Michigan team in the 1997 NCAAs – posted by the Terriers with more at stake than the one in the 2009 NCAA Championship Game.

No BU squad has ever walked the tight rope and responded to postseason pressure more effectively than this group did over the final month of must-win games, with five of the last six decided by a single goal:

3-2 over Boston College in the Hockey East Semifinals
1-0 over Lowell in the Hockey East Championship Game
2-1 over New Hampshire in the Northeast Regional Final
5-4 over Vermont in the NCAA Semifinals
4-3 over Miami in the NCAA Championship Game.

The win over the RedHawks pushed the Terriers into an elite group of schools, in terms of winning NCAA titles, with BU and Minnesota now tied with five championships apiece, trailing Wisconsin with six, North Dakota and Denver with seven, and Michigan with nine. No other Eastern school can match BU’s 38 NCAA Tournament game wins or the program’s 31 NCAA Tournament berths.

Was this the best Terrier team ever to lace up the skates? As radio play-by-play man Bernie Corbett astutely pointed out, if you match up the resumes of BU’s five NCAA championship squads, and mark down all their accomplishments from the beginning of the season to the end, the 2008-09 club moves to the front of the line. Every single piece of hardware the Terriers played for this season (Icebreaker Invitational, Denver Cup, Beanpot Tournament, Hockey East regular-season, Hockey East championship, NCAA Northeast Regional and the NCAA championship) they won, en route to becoming the first BU team ever to collect 35 wins. If you throw in Matt Gilroy’s Hobey Baker Award, Jack Parker’s Spencer Penrose Award and Kieran Millan’s National Rookie of the Year Award, recognition for this team was bursting at the seams. Truthfully, it was a season the likes of which may not be seen again on Commonwealth Avenue for a while.

All four of BU’s other NCAA title teams had at least one stumble in tournament play during the course of the season. The 1971 NCAA champions were tripped up by Harvard in the ECAC semifinals; the 1972 NCAA champions (who were absolutely dominant in five postseason games, outscoring their opponents 23-5) were beaten by archrival Cornell in the Syracuse Invitational; the 1978 NCAA champions (who lost but one regular-season game) fell to Providence in the ECAC semifinals, and the 1995 NCAA champions (who outscored its three NCAA opponents 19-7) dropped an overtime decision to Maine in the Great Western Freezeout.

Wednesday afternoon’s victory rally started with a Duck Boat ride for the players in Kenmore Square and ended up with the team wading its way through an appreciative and sizable throng at Marsh Plaza before being showered with confetti. Jack Parker addressed the crowd, specifically thanking the students who had attended the Miami game for their enthusiastic support, especially when the chips were down late in the game.

He then turned his attention to his championship club.

“People keep asking me, ‘Is this the best Boston University team of all-time?’ I have to say that no other team won this many trophies and this many tournaments and had the heart-stopping trek through the Hockey East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament as this club did,” Parker noted. “They also won more games than any other BU team. I think it’s easy for me to say right now that this is the greatest team that I’ve ever coached at Boston University.”

Six seniors (Gilroy, Lawrence, Higgins, McCarthy, Brandon Yip and Steve Smolinsky) have wrapped up their careers, and Wilson, after earning All-American status as a sophomore, has signed a contract with Nashville. Others may follow, so there will certainly be holes for Parker to fill in his lineup next season. But before then, there will be some time to reflect and enjoy all that went into the D.C. Miracle.

One other important question remains for the Terriers. Who from the pages of history will provide the inspiration behind the sweat once the puck drops again next season, Magellan, da Gama or Eriksson?

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