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On College Hockey

Without any sense of entitlement

Bill Arnold is one happy Eagle after teammate Pat Mullane scored the first goal and started BC on the road to its third Frozen Four in five years. Bill Arnold is one happy Eagle after teammate Pat Mullane scored the first goal and started BC on the road to its third Frozen Four in five years. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
March 26, 2012
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WORCESTER - The last time that Boston College and Minnesota-Duluth met in the NCAA Tournament they were playing for third place in Detroit after each had lost in triple overtime. Minnesota-Duluth won that encounter, 7-6, on a day when both varsities would rather have been installing radiators on a Ford assembly line than playing for a consolation prize.

That was in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Scott Sandelin was playing for North Dakota, and Jerry York was coaching at Bowling Green, where he’d just learned what Sandelin found out this season - how hard it is for a defending champion to repeat.

“It’s very difficult to lose,’’ Sandelin conceded Sunday night after his Bulldogs had been clawed, 4-0, by the soaring Eagles in the Northeast Regional final at the DCU Center with a Frozen Four berth at stake. “Certainly it leaves a sick feeling in your stomach.’’

BC has made it to the national semifinals so often - 10 times now during York’s 18-year tenure - that its fans likely don’t appreciate how extraordinary an achievement that is.

“I want to do the same thing they’re doing,’’ said Sandelin after his squad had become the seventh straight champion that couldn’t pull off a reprise.

Reaching the championship game, which the Eagles have done seven times in the last 14 years, is a more elusive feat still. Cornell, which won two titles in four years, hasn’t played for the championship since 1972. Lake Superior State, which won in 1992 and 1994, hasn’t come close since.

Winning the title, which BC has managed three times in 11 years, is a once-a-decade moment for most schools. Wisconsin has claimed only one since 1990. Maine hasn’t won since 1999, North Dakota not since 2000. It took Harvard 11 trips to the Frozen Four before it finally prevailed in 1989 and the Crimson haven’t made a final since.

Repeating is such a challenge that only four programs - Michigan, Denver, Minnesota, and Boston University - ever have done it. “It’s gotten tougher and tougher in today’s game with the early departures,’’ Sandelin said.

BC’s recent experience has been instructive. After breezing past North Dakota and Notre Dame for the 2008 title, the Eagles went 18-14-5 in 2009 and had their season ended in the Hockey East semis by BU, which went on to win its first title in 14 years.

After reclaiming the crown in 2010 with blowouts over Miami and Wisconsin, BC cruised into the regionals last year as a No. 1 seed and was plucked, 8-4, by a Colorado College club that then lost to Michigan.

“The quest for our seniors was to win three national titles in four years,’’ said York. “We were so geared toward that, when we lost it was a hard, hard thing for our club. That stung a little bit because that was a really good team.’’

When you’re the reigning king, every team you meet from October onward wants to assassinate you. “You get a lot of teams’ ‘A’ game,’’ said BC captain Tommy Cross. “That makes every victory hard.’’

Minnesota-Duluth knew that every opponent from Anchorage to Kalamazoo would be trying to take off its head. “Obviously you’re going to start the year off with a target on your back after winning it last year,’’ Minnesota-Duluth captain Jack Connolly acknowledged when he and his teammates arrived here.

Indeed, the Bulldogs were beaten twice in their own rink by archrival Minnesota on the season’s second weekend and still are hearing about it from Gophers fans who delight in telling them: “We’re Minnesota, you’re Duluth.’’ UMD finished second to the Gophers in the WCHA, then were knocked out of the Final Five in double overtime by Denver and didn’t know for a couple of days where they’d be going or who’d they’d be playing.

The regionals are where promising seasons go to die. In their last two championship years, the Eagles needed to labor mightily for their exit visas. In 2008, they had to rally to subdue Miami in overtime on Joe Whitney’s diving swat. After leading Yale by five goals with seven minutes to play in 2010, BC had to sweat out a 9-7 triumph.

Neither team had it easy getting to the regional final here. Minnesota-Duluth trailed Maine by two goals in the second period before winning, 5-2, and BC only led Air Force, 1-0, with 90 seconds to go. But once the puck was dropped with the Frozen Four on the line, the Eagles went talons-to-throat. “Pretty much what we’d seen on tape was what they brought,’’ reported Sandelin.

Seeing it in person was sobering. The same team that dropped five goals on Maine Saturday was shut out cold by Parker Milner and his centurions. Once BC staggered the Bulldogs with a 1-2 punch early in the second period - goals by Pat Mullane and Bill Arnold 86 seconds apart - the proceedings were all but finished. “There wasn’t a bunch of panic on our bench,’’ said UMD defenseman Brady Lamb. “We just couldn’t quite get it done tonight.’’

The Eagles haven’t won those 17 in a row by selling indulgences. Still, they knew there was no easy route to Florida from here. “It’s been two years since someone took the sticks away from Duluth,’’ observed York. “They’re that good of a program. They didn’t go down easy tonight. We had to play very, very well.’’

But the Bulldogs went down and out and now the Eagles have a date with the Gophers in the building where they hand out the trophy. “It never gets old,’’ York mused. “To go to Tampa and bring your club with you . . .’’

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

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