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On college hockey

Unflappable to the finish

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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This is how difficult it is to get off your own corner in the middle of the winter. Boston College’s varsity is the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 in the land again. Yet it had to go to overtime twice against squads that probably won’t make the NCAA Tournament and needed seven goals last night to beat a Northeastern team that hasn’t had its snout inside the Beanpot since 1988.

“It’s a hard tournament to win,’’ coach Jerry York mused after his Eagles finally had muzzled the Huskies on Jimmy Hayes’s goal six minutes into the extra session at TD Garden to claim the town trophy for the third time in four years. “You have rivalries you don’t have at the national level.’’

And on consecutive Mondays in February, they’re out for blood and glory. BC and NU will play twice this weekend but their meetings won’t have a fraction of the intensity that last night’s title match did, when the Eagles had to come from behind three times to prevail. There is no other tournament like this one — not the Hockey East championship, not the NCAAs. “The attendance, the passion, the enthusiasm, the energy, the history,’’ said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin.

Boston College almost surely is going to make it to the NCAAs for the 12th time in 14 years but everybody else in the neighborhood likely is going to be watching on television. Northeastern has no chance at an at-large invitation and Boston University was on the bubble even before it lost to Harvard in yesterday’s consolation game, so the Terriers will have to win the Hockey East tournament to earn an automatic bid. Harvard, which has been bumping along the bottom of the ECAC standings and is headed for a third straight losing season, also will have to run the table.

So winning this silver heirloom was a priority, especially for Northeastern, which has been odd man out since the Eighties. “I know we haven’t won this thing in 22 years,’’ said Cronin. “That’s all I hear about. I was doing Hail Marys and rosaries to win the damn thing to get the cloud off our back.’’

For several stirring stretches last night, it did indeed appear that this could, finally, be the Year of the Hound. The Huskies led, 2-1, after the first period. They were up, 3-2, then 5-4 with less than 10 minutes to play. And after BC poked home a pair within a minute and a half to take the lead, Wade MacLeod got his mates into overtime just before Cronin would have had to pull goalie Chris Rawlings.

So after Hayes scored the winner, the Huskies sat dazed and deflated on their bench, unable to watch the exuberant maroon-and-gold pigpile at the far end of the ice. “We thought this was going to be our year,’’ said MacLeod. “But it turned out not to be.’’

Yet what happened this time, in both the consolation and the final, still was heartening to college hockey devotees who’ve been yearning for a four-way fight for a couple of decades.

Northeastern easily could have won had the puck bounced its way at the right time. “We know we can play with the No. 1 team in the country,’’ concluded MacLeod.

And Harvard, which hadn’t beaten BU in a Beanpot game since 1994 and had been in a deep freeze for most of the winter, rallied for two goals in the final five minutes for a 5-4 decision that just might help the Crimson stage a late run and do a bit of tournament damage. “I think there’s a lot of optimism for the end of the season,’’ said coach Ted Donato, whose club had won only one game since New Year’s Day.

It’s notable that this was the first time since 1980 that the Terriers lost both games in the tournament. For years the joke had been that the Beanpot had become the BU Invitational and it’s true that there had been decidedly less buzz about what legendary BC mentor Snooks Kelley once called “a social and athletic must.’’ In the first four years of the Eighties, each team got to skate a victory lap. But as Harvard and Northeastern began slipping, BC-BU finals had become all too predictable.

That’s changed in recent years and the tournament and the rivalries are the better for it. And while Boston College has become the class of both city and country, they’ve had to labor mightily for their February treasure. In 2008, the Eagles had to beat both BU and Harvard in overtime. Last year, they beat BU by one goal, which has become their customary margin.

This time BC had to kill two late power plays just to get to overtime against BU and couldn’t finish off Northeastern in regulation. But the Eagles, who are unflappable in overtime, figured they’d find a way to get their talons on the trophy. “We were calm,’’ said Hayes. “We’ve played a lot of big games.’’

And won most of them. Three national titles over the past decade. Four Hockey East playoff crowns in the last six years. And now, three of the last four Beanpots. The difference last night was program pedigree. The Eagles expect to win because they have won and they’ve turned Kelley Rink into a hardware store. The thing about trophies, York was saying, is that they come from single-elimination play, which is a format they’ve come to master at the Heights. Getting off your corner is the first step. How hard is it? Until last night, BC hadn’t managed it twice in a row since 1965.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.