THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Eagles feathered their nest

Togetherness put BC on a winning flight

BRIAN GIBBONS Bond was formed BRIAN GIBBONS
Bond was formed
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / April 6, 2010

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When members of the Boston College men’s hockey staff were planning their strategy for the 2009-10 season, coach Jerry York knew there were more questions than answers. There was the matter of the arthroscopic surgery that No. 1 goaltender John Muse had on his right hip in April, after the Eagles failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

There was the matter of losing four key defensemen to either graduation (Tim Filangieri, Tim Kunes and Anthony Aiello) or the pros (Nick Petrecki) and there were the freshmen or sophomores (seven total) that needed to play key roles up front. York knew there would be incoming talent, it was just a matter of how it would all come together.

There were bumps in the road — a three-game losing streak at the start of 2010 — but in the 22 contests since, BC is 17-4-1. Heading into Thursday night’s Frozen Four semifinal against Miami University (29-7-7) at Detroit’s Ford Field, the Eagles (27-10-3) are riding an 11-game unbeaten streak (10-0-1) and have won seven straight.

If the expectations were murky at the beginning, they certainly aren’t now. Those players remaining from the 2008 NCAA championship team came into the season hungrier and more focused, and those who as freshmen were left out of an opportunity last year, combined with the veterans in their determination to get the chance at another title.

Junior left wing Joe Whitney said the atmosphere around this team is similar to the 2008 squad.

“How close we are as a team is very important to winning,’’ said Whitney. “I think we’re as close if not closer than we were my freshman year. Everyone loves each other and we’re all best friends. We never get sick of each other. I think that’s a huge part of our success so far. The most important part for us is having fun.’’

Whitney said he’s enjoying this season more because there was so much to learn early on.

“As a freshman, I came in and I didn’t know what to expect,’’ he said. “This year, being a junior and more of a leader on the team and especially after last season, everybody put their noses to the grindstone and really worked hard in the offseason. Everyone was determined. I think this year would be a pretty special team if we could do it.’’

Former BC captain Mike Brennan, now playing for the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League, was a senior when BC’s current juniors were freshmen. He said it was evident the class was talented enough to accomplish a great deal throughout their college careers.

“That freshman class my senior year was really dynamic,’’ said Brennan. “I could tell that class was special and [center Brian Gibbons] was definitely one of those players who could be an elite player in the country. He showed flashes of it his freshman year.

“You can obviously see he’s turned into an elite player in the country. He’s one of those guys who can be dynamic every night and I think he’s matured into that role and embraced it. [Playing with Whitney], I think it was a natural connection. They’re both great puck movers and I think Whitney is more of a puck possession, dish-type of player. Watching them play, they look like a dynamic elite line [with sophomore right wing Cam Atkinson] and you need that to win the championship.’’

Gibbons believes the only difference between this year’s team and two years ago is perception.

“This year, the outside expectations weren’t as high for us as maybe my freshman year,’’ said Gibbons. “Last year, we didn’t have a very good season, so no one knew what to expect. We had 10 new freshmen coming in. It forced us to bond quickly with the younger guys because we knew we’d need them to have success.

“It was kind of us against everyone else. This year it was more of a younger team with a lot more underclassmen and just seven of us that remained from the national championship team. So the freshmen and sophomores brought a lot of energy to the team and the freshmen have real good personalities and kind of kept things loose when things might not have been going our way. The older guys might have felt more of the pressure from last year after not having a good year but the freshmen didn’t know any better, so they kept the locker room loose.’’

What began as a season of uncertainty has evolved into one of the highest expectations.

“Everybody’s playing well,’’ said Whitney. “There’s a lot of confidence in the team right now and in the dressing room. Everyone believes in each other.’’

That came as no surprise to Brennan.

“I think the senior class they have with Matt Price and [Ben Smith], they’ve learned over the years to be a resilient group and they’re relentless and I think that’s what we were,’’ said Brennan. “We were a really relentless group and we wouldn’t take no for an answer. We came back in that Miami game in the [Northeast Regional final] and won that [in overtime] to go to the Frozen Four. This team looks like it’s resilient and relentless and they’re just the epitome of BC hockey. It’s good to go onto the national stage with that kind of confidence.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.