BOSTON -- Lately, Boston College hockey players have been able to dream big dreams, fueled by the promise of playing in the TD Garden at least once, if not more often, every season. They dream of league titles and national championships.
In fact, those dreams almost seem to be a birthright, as the Eagles now engender talk of dynasty, having dominated a league -- Hockey East -- that many hockey observers consider one of the best, top to bottom, in the country. The BC coaching staff refers to March as "trophy season," and the Eagles pursue postseason hardware with ruthless efficiency.
The latest example was BC's methodical dispatching of No. 11 Maine in Saturday's Hockey East championship game, 4-1, before 13,709 at TD Garden. It was the No. 1-ranked Eagles' third straight Hockey East crown -- a league record -- and 11th overall in the league's 28-year history.
They've been in seven of the past eight Hockey East finals, and they've won two of the past four NCAA championships. So you can't blame BC hockey recruits for thinking that trophies are a part of their destiny.
Yet sometimes it’s a kid who wasn't even planning on attending The Heights who benefits from BC's prosperous hockey tradition. Freshman Johnny Gaudreau originally committed to Northeastern, but reconsidered after former coach Greg Cronin left the program, and the New Jersey native literally fell into the Eagles' collective lap.
On Saturday, the freshman was instrumental in BC's victory, striking for two first-period goals to jettison his squad into a lead it would never relinquish. It was the Eagles' 15th straight win -- avenging their last two losses, both to Maine in late January -- and allowed BC to capture this season's Trifecta of Beanpot crown, regular-season championship and tournament title. Next up is the NCAA tournament, which will likely find BC as a No. 1 seed at the Northeast Regionals in Worcester.
"There's definitely pressure and everyone wants you to win," said Gaudreau after collecting tournament MVP honors, to go with his Beanpot MVP. "We're such a good team, no one expects us to lose, since we're playing so well."
The Black Bears (23-13-3), like they had two years ago, gave Boston College (28-10-1) a game, but didn't have the firepower to match the high-flying Eagles.
"I thought our team played extremely well," said BC coach Jerry York. "It was probably the best game we've played in the last two or three weeks as far as defensive zone coverage, and as far as breaking pucks out of our zone.
"And we're continuing to get outstanding play from Johnny Gaudreau up front and Parker Milner in the goal," he said. "Those have been two of the really key reasons why we've been going on a run like this. There are a lot of reasons. But those two individuals have really stepped up their game lately."
Milner joined Gaudreau on the all-tournament team, along with teammate Brian Dumoulin, Maine's Joey Diamond and Will O'Neill, and BU's Alex Chiasson. But Gaudreau was the lone freshman.
"Johnny's skills are incredible," said BC captain Tommy Cross. "But the biggest thing is he's a team-first guy. When you get a star player that's a team-first guy, that's a really good recipe. He's stayed humble, and for the most part he's stayed pretty consistent this stretch of the year. That's really impressive, because it's a jump to this level."
For Maine, it was a bitter defeat, coming just two years after the Eagles tagged the Black Bears with a gut-wrenching 7-6 overtime loss in the finals, ending their season.
"It's disappointing to get that close and not win," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "I'm very impressed with BC, as always. They know how to win, and they won tonight. I thought they deserved it. They really kept pressing.
"We got out of the gate a little tentative, and to fall behind to a strong team like BC, that made it a tough climb," he said. "But these guys didn't quit at all."
Before the puck even dropped, BC got a huge assist from an unlikely source -- Boston University. In their semifinal match the night before, the Terriers knocked Maine's Spencer Abbott, the league's leading scorer and Player of the Year, out of the game and out of the championship tilt.
"Spencer Abbott is a Hobey Baker finalist and certainly one of the top players in the league," said York. "For him to not play tonight was certainly a blow to their aspirations of winning the championship."
The final started at a furious pace, with both squads getting quality bids in the opening four minutes. The Black Bears came out snarling, peppering BC's Milner with three quality bids right off the opening draw.
"We came right out of the gate, first couple of shifts, raring to go," said Maine's Brian Flynn. "We came hard, and then, after we got our first shift, we kind of sat back and they were able to make some nice plays."
Maine goalie Dan Sullivan (39 saves) quickly got in to act, as the sophomore stopped BC's Bill Arnold on a turnaround bid, and followed up with several quality saves in tight.
Gaudreau broke the ice at 5:24, with a trademark "Johnny on the spot" tally. Patch Alber sent a shot from the right point that ricocheted off the skate of Maine defender Nick Pryor. Gaudreau, lurking near the goal, jumped on the loose puck and stuffed it past Sullivan for a 1-0 lead, and his 18th of the season.
"I like to read the play. Some of it's luck, being at the right place, right time," said Gaudreau. "It's also a lot of help from my teammates. Rebounds, screens have been a big factor in our game, just getting around the dirty areas. That's where the pucks are gong to end up being, and that's where you've got to be to score goals."
Gaudreau quickly added to his haul, and the sledding got tougher for the Black Bears at 7:22. Diamond, Maine's talented-but-combustible forward, ran BC's Alber at the blueline, and was whistled off for interference. Just eight seconds into the man-advantage, Gaudreau converted for his second strike of the game.
BC's Chris Kreider sent a wrister from the right point that Sullivan stopped. Pat Mullane got a crack at the puck, but his jam attempt squirted out to Gaudreau, who calmly slid a backhander past Sullivan at 7:31 to double the Eagle lead.
Still, Sullivan (39 saves) was almost single-handedly keeping his Black Bears in the game, stopping 18 of 20 first-period BC shots. After stuffing BC's Barry Almeida on a 2-on-1 bid, the Maine sophomore rebuffed a flurry of top-notch Eagles chances with less than 5 minutes left in the period.
After a frantic first-period, the game hit a more measured stride in the middle frame, with quality scoring chances becoming more rare as both teams clamped down defensively. Maine regrouped nicely, and got within 1 on the strength of Flynn's 18th of the season at 7:37.
After Milner tried to clear the puck into the corner, Maine's Diamond was the first to the biscuit. Spying Flynn slicing into the zone, Diamond slipped a tape-to-tape pass to his linemate, and Flynn did the rest, cutting across the low slot and roofing a backhander past Milner's blocker.
The Black Bears again called on Sullivan to keep the game close at 10:45, which he did with an acrobatic right pad save on Gaudreau's spin-o-rama bid for a hat trick on the doorstep. But Gaudreau would come back to haunt Maine at 18:39, when he set up linemate Mullane for BC's third goal.
Following BC's Paul Carey's drive to the net, Gaudreau picked up the puck behind the goal line. Mullane, trailing on the play, slipped into the slot, and Gaudreau hit him with a perfect pass, which the junior from Connecticut buried in the right side of the Maine net for a 3-1 BC lead.
From that point on, Maine showed some desperation, and began putting more rubber on goal. But BC's defense did a tremendous job of giving its goaltender a good look, and the BC junior stopped every Black Bears bid. A key save came with under 2 minutes left, and Sullivan pulled for the extra attacker. Flynn ripped a shot from the slot that Milner gobbled up, denying two Maine forwards from getting a sniff of a rebound.
"Parker played outstanding and as a defense we try to stress clearing the lanes so he can see pucks and I thought we did a really great job of that this weekend," said Cross. "Parker was like a vacuum. There were not a lot of second chances. It seemed that he kept everything in his stomach and that’s huge when you play teams like Maine."
As the clock ticked down to the last minute, BC's Barry Almeida was able to shake a Maine defender, collect the puck along the right wall, and escort it into the empty net for the final 4-1 margin. In the final seconds, the BC faithful began to chant from the TD Garden stands: "This is our house."
It was tough to argue.