On college hockey

No surprises here

Ancient rivals stage another classic battle

By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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It didn’t matter that they were the defending national titlists. It didn’t matter that they were ranked No. 1 in the land. It didn’t matter that they were the reigning Beanpot champions or that they had beaten their archrivals from the other end of the avenue all three times they’d met this season. Boston College’s hockey varsity was going to have to sweat blood last night and they knew that.

“I said before the game, ‘This is going to be a battle,’ ’’ associate coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the Eagles had found a way to get past Boston University, 3-2, in overtime to advance to next Monday’s final against Northeastern, which earlier had expunged Harvard, 4-0. When hasn’t it been a battle between these Commonwealth cousins? Their last eight Beanpot meetings have been decided by one goal, four of them requiring an extra session.

“They’ve gotten us a bunch of times and we’ve gotten them a bunch of times,’’ said BC goalie John Muse.

Since 2003, the ledger is four apiece and the Eagles never felt sure about this one until defenseman Tommy Cross put in the winner off a Terrier body on the power play after 63 minutes and 17 seconds.

“That’s the best team in the nation and we played head-to-head with them,’’ declared BU coach Jack Parker.

In each of their meetings, the young Terriers have chewed away at the gap, from 9-5 to 5-2 to 3-2 to 3-2 in OT. This time, they pushed the Eagles to the limit and beyond. After BC got up first, BU equalized after just 38 seconds. With just over 15 minutes to play, the Terriers were up, 2-1. And if Muse hadn’t stuffed Alex Chiasson on a breakaway late in the second period, it would have been 3-1 and BC would have been in big trouble.

As it was, the Eagles had to survive two BU power plays in the last five minutes just to stay aloft.

“Huge kills at the end of the third,’’ testified Muse. “That really gave us a boost going into overtime.’’

If goalie Kieran Millan hadn’t stopped Philip Samuelsson on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box with less than a minute to go, BC could have ended it in regulation. “It would have been an amazing way to finish it,’’ said Cavanaugh, who was serving as spokesman for Jerry York, who’d been rendered speechless by laryngitis.

The next chance the Eagles got, when BU defenseman Ryan Ruikka was whistled for crosschecking three minutes into OT, they made sure of it.

“You don’t get second chances in the Beanpot,’’ Cavanaugh remarked.

Had the Eagles been knocked out last night, life would have gone on. They almost surely would have made it to the NCAA Tournament and quite likely to the Frozen Four, which has become their version of a working April vacation.

For Northeastern, which has never won a national crown and hasn’t been to the Frozen Four since 1982, the Beanpot has taken on the magnitude of an NCAA title. It has been 23 years since the Huntington Hounds last earned barking rights hereabouts and the last time they came close still hurts to mention. Nobody ever had scored three shorthanded goals in a ‘Pot title match until BU did to NU two years ago. “Unfortunately, those are the memories of the NU people over the last 20 years,’’ mused Huskies coach Greg Cronin. “Near misses.’’

The memories at the Heights, at least the recent ones, are of being last team in the country still standing and being measured for rings. Not that BC doesn’t cherish the local silver centerpiece, even if it can’t go in the oven. But once you’ve won four NCAA titles, three of them coming during the last decade, dominating the neighborhood doesn’t seem as climactic as it once did.

Not that Northeastern doesn’t crave a national crown, too, but it’s a question of what’s attainable. For NU, it’s the Beanpot and even that has been damnably hard to claim. The Huskies have won just four and all of them came during the Eighties. The Soviet empire has come apart since then and NU fans are starting to wonder whether Gibraltar will crumble before their dog finally has his day. “The mentality is, when are we going to win the damn thing,’’ acknowledged Cronin, “and they are getting sick of it and I don’t blame them.’’

Long ago, BC adherents felt the same way. From 1965 until 1994, the Eagles won the Beanpot twice. Now that they’ve claimed four of the last 10, there hasn’t been as much of a run on Dom Perignon in Chestnut Hill, where champagne has become an April occasion. If Northeastern can pull this one off, there’ll be the biggest celebration on Huntington Ave. since the end of Prohibition. “They’ll have to get both the NUPD and the Boston PD around the campus if we win it,’’ Cronin predicted.

John Powers can be reached at