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BC 5, Merrimack 3

Third degree

BC explodes for three goals in final period to capture 10th Hockey East title

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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No one can argue with the season Merrimack has had. The Warriors have reached milestones and acclaim that coach Mark Dennehy, his players, and the administration deserve. Their season will continue next weekend with the NCAA Regionals, with the matchups scheduled to be announced today.

But in last night’s Hockey East tournament final at TD Garden, defending national champion Boston College, as it so often has, found a way to kick it into another gear in the third period, scoring three times on its way to a 5-3 victory in front of 14,571.

It was the 10th tournament title for the Eagles, who improved to 30-7-1 for the season. BC, which has won two straight league titles and four in the last five years, earned an automatic berth into the regionals.

Junior right wing Cam Atkinson proved to be the hero, scoring both of his goals in the final frame, including the winner, and earned tournament most valuable player honors.

“It was a lot of battles,’’ said BC coach Jerry York. “Cam came up with an outstanding effort on the winning goal. When you have the two last teams standing and you have a game that well structured and that well played in that competitive an environment, it’s good for Hockey East and good for college hockey.’’

The Eagles struck first during a wild opening period. Merrimack freshman defenseman Jordan Heywood couldn’t collect a pass and BC sophomore center Pat Mullane took advantage by pouncing on the puck, racing in on Joe Cannata, and guiding the puck between the netminder’s pads at 9:15.

Merrimack (25-9-4) wasn’t down for long. Twenty-six seconds later, junior left wing Ryan Flanigan took a pass from Carter Madsen and fired a shot from the right circle that beat BC goalie John Muse over the glove to tie it.

BC went back on top at 11:03 when senior center Brian Gibbons potted a rebound. Atkinson took the initial shot and Gibbons was in perfect position to backhand the carom under Cannata.

But that edge lasted only until late in the period when the Warriors clawed their way back to even with 24.1 seconds remaining during a power play. Joe Cucci had the puck in the left circle and zipped it toward the net for freshman left wing Mike Collins, who was charging to the right post. He directed it past Muse and it was 2-2.

There were other scoring opportunities in the period. Flanigan had three whacks at the puck from just outside the right post at 14:50, but Muse (36 saves) kept him at bay. At 16:49, BC had a flurry in front of Cannata with junior left wing Barry Almeida trying to find an opening inside the left post when Cannata was tripped behind the net by teammate Jesse Todd, but couldn’t slip it into the cage.

The second period was scoreless as BC outshot Merrimack, 15-11. The Warriors’ top sniper — center Stephane Da Costa — had a golden opportunity to put his team ahead for the first time when he had a shot from point-blank range at 3:18, but Muse blocked it with his pads. BC had a five-on-three advantage for 40 seconds during the middle of the period, but although the Eagles had chances, Cannata (30 saves) was strong.

That set the stage for an incredible finish.

At 9:41, the Eagles went on top for the third time when Atkinson backhanded in a rebound of a Joe Whitney shot. Whitney made a deft move to the net, deking defenseman Karl Stollery before getting a backhander on net. The carom went to Atkinson, who gave Cannata no chance of stopping him.

That didn’t faze the Warriors. They came back to tie it during a power play at 13:32 when Flanigan potted his second, taking a pass from Da Costa and testing Muse from just outside the right post. The rebound came right back to Flanigan and he turned to his backhand, lifting it over Muse to make it 3-3.

Then it was Atkinson again, whose laser from the left point delivered the final blow to the Warriors’ chances with 5:11 left. Brian Dumoulin sealed it with a power-play goal with 1:36 left, shooting a wrister from the left point that nicked off the skate of Stollery and in.

Dennehy credited his players for the program’s turnaround.

“I don’t care who you are as a coach, if you don’t have good players, you’re not going to have success,’’ he said. “I think it was John Wooden who said, ‘The team that gets off the bus with the best players wins 90 percent of the time.’ It begins and ends with them. If we did anything intelligently, it was trying to go after players from [winning] programs. We went after a lot of guys who have played in big games and had success.’’

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