CHESTNUT HILL -- After a three-game hiatus, the Johnny Gaudreau Show returned to Boston College on Friday, as the superb sophomore led the Eagles to a convincing 5-2 win over Hockey East rival No. 4 New Hampshire before a crowd of 7,884 at Conte Forum.
It's been an uneven semester break for the No. 3 Eagles (13-3-2; 10-2-1 Hockey East), full of highs and lows. Head coach Jerry York secured the all-time wins record on Dec. 29, only to see his Eagles manhandled the next night as they lost, 8-1, to Minnesota. A 3-3 tie against the Yale Bulldogs at home on Jan. 4 did little to rally the BC faithful before Friday's marquee matchup with New Hampshire (13-4-2; 8-3-1 HE).
And just when BC got some reinforcement in the form of Gaudreau, fresh off his gold-medal performance in the World Junior Championships in Russia (where he was Team USA's leading scorer with seven goals), the Eagles lost York for the weekend due to outpatient eye surgery. However, York has always maintained that players win games, and it was Gaudreau who played the pivotal role in BC's thumping win, collecting three points on a goal (the game-winner) and two assists as the game's No. 1 star.
"It's pretty nice to have him back," said BC captain Pat Mullane, the recipient of two seeing-eye passes by Gaudreau that led directly to goals. "He makes some special plays. He sees the ice better than just about anyone I've ever played with.
"When I give him the puck, it's my job to get open, and find those lanes, and if I do my job, Johnny's just so good at making those special passes," Mullane continued. "And he did that tonight."
BC associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh, who along with associate head coach Greg Brown ran the BC bench in York's absence, said the influence Gaudreau has on the Eagles can't be discounted.
"Johnny is about as humble a superstar as you're going to find," Cavanaugh said. "He'll probably be upset that I called him a superstar, but he just wants to be one of the guys. That's his really unique trait. He's such a fun hockey player to watch, but he really just wants to be one of the guys, and he gets so much respect from our players. He clearly lifts our team when he's playing."
York had a hunch that New Hampshire would be a contender this season, casting his preseason coaches' poll ballot in favor of the Wildcats. The early-season success of Dick Umile's squad has proven York's vote prophetic, riding the nation's fifth-best offense and sixth-best defense to a No. 4 ranking in both national polls. On Friday, the Cats jumped out of the gate quickly. Junior Dalton Speelman ripped a wrister off the right wing at the 3-minute mark that beat BC's Parker Milner cleanly but clanked off the post.
At 8:54, UNH broke the ice. Matt Willows forced BC defender Patrick Wey into a turnover behind the Eagles' net, and quickly slipped the puck in front to linemate Jay Camper, who tucked it past Milner for his second on the year and a 1-0 Wildcat lead.
The Eagles got level at 13:29. Forward Bill Arnold (like Gaudreau, a Calgary Flame draft choice) swung wide behind the UNH net before feathering a pass into the slot to a waiting Kevin Hayes, and the junior from Dorchester sizzled a shot past Casey DeSmith's glove. Milner (31 saves) kept the score tied with a dandy right pad stop on UNH's Austin Block at 16:20.
A minute later, Gaudreau began to put his imprint on the game, recording points on the next three goals. With a UNH defender draped on his back, Gaudreau slipped a slick backhand pass to Mullane, who wasted no time in roofing the puck over DeSmith's right shoulder for a 2-1 BC lead.
"He's a very cerebral player," said BC's Brown. "He really sees things a little earlier than everyone else. Some guys have anticipation; his anticipation is a little quicker than everyone else's. So he puts himself in terrific positions, and then he's got the skill level to carry it through once he does get the puck."
BC stretched its lead to 3-1 at 5:01 of the second. Moments after Mullane missed a tip-in at the left post, Gaudreau was sent in alone by a nice touch pass from BC's Destry Straight. Before UNH defender Brett Pesce could close him down, Gaudreau went to his backhand and went top shelf over DeSmith's glove for his 12th goal of the season.
"Coming back here (after the Worlds), playing with Steve (Whitney) and Pat, I think we've got a pretty good connection, and a pretty good feel for each other," Gaudreau said. "So it was pretty exciting to get back to see if we still had it."
They did. The Eagles effectively salted the game away at 15:43, with Gaudreau again the catalyst. Gathering a loose puck from Whitney deep in the right corner, Gaudreau spun around and rifled a perfect pass past two UNH players to Mullane at the doorstep, and the senior from Connecticut tapped it past DeSmith for a commanding 4-1 lead.
"Obviously, they're a real good hockey team," Umile said. "We can't give them odd-man rushes, and when you do, that's what they do. They bury them."
With less than 15 seconds left in the middle stanza, Arnold (two points on a goal and an assist) took a behind-the-net feed from Hayes and stuffed the puck past DeSmith to put the game out of reach.
New Hampshire cut the lead to three just 37 seconds into the third period, when junior Kevin Goumas took a feed from Pesce and snapped a low shot between Milner and the right post. But the Wildcats weren't able to build any momentum off the strike, and BC's counterattack kept them off balance and off the score sheet. UNH's Jeff Wyer finished with eight saves in relief of DeSmith, who stopped 12 BC shots.
York will get credit for career win No. 926, even though he wasn't on the bench (Cavanaugh reported the 67-year-old coach was resting comfortably). The Eagles will look to deliver York win No. 927 when the two teams square off again Saturday night at UNH's Olympic-size rink at the Whittemore Center. And, in a strange twist, the larger ice surface could spell trouble for the Wildcats.
Earlier in the week, when asked what was one of the major differences he found playing in the World Junior Championships, Gaudreau replied: "I think the bigger ice. I can use it to my advantage. We're playing at UNH this weekend, and they have a pretty big sheet of ice, and hopefully I can use that to my advantage like I did out in Russia."
Not exactly a prospect that the Wildcats will be looking forward to, considering what Gaudreau did to them on the smaller ice surface at Kelley Rink. But Goumas said he's looking forward to the challenge.
"Anytime you have a home-and-home series against a team, especially them, atop (Hockey) East and the nation, it's good to get them back at your place if things like tonight don't go well," he said.
"We didn't play our best game tonight, especially defensively, and we better wake up tomorrow night," Umile said.