Leave it to the son of a Terrier to crush the Hockey East title aspirations of Boston University. Maine's Will O'Neill, whose father Bill played for the BU team that captured the 1978 national championship, was a terror at TD Garden on Friday, scoring his scoring his second and third goals of the year to pace the Maine Black Bears past the Terriers in a see-saw Hockey East semifinal, 5-3.
The win virtually assures the 11th-ranked Black Bears (22-12-3) a spot in the NCAA field of 16. With the loss, 5th-ranked BU (23-13-1) squandered a golden opportunity to grab one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
As a result, Maine will face Boston College in the Hockey East championship game Saturday. It's a final full of intrigue, a repeat of the first Hockey East final at Boston Garden 25 years ago (which BC won, 4-2), and a repeat of the 2010 final, a crazy 7-6 overtime Eagles win that propelled them to an eventual national championship.
Maine is also the last team to beat BC this year, sweeping a pair in Orono in late January. Since then, the Eagles have ripped off 14 straight wins.
"The positive was we won two games," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "The negative was that we woke up a sleeping giant. They've been outstanding ever since. So we know we'll have our hands full with Boston College. We know we're going to have to play great team defense, and find a way to score some goals."
O'Neill, a senior captain, said the experience of the gut-wrenching 2010 final loss set the stage for the 4th-seeded Black Bears' win on Friday.
"I think it helped us coming into this game tonight," he said. "We're used to the surroundings, the hoopla surrounding the event. We knew we had had to focus, and that it was going to be a challenge, and that's what we took out of it.
"In terms of playing (BC in the final), it's two different teams," he said. "We've played them strong this year. Hopefully, we come out of the gate, come out strong, get great goaltending, and just to execute, and play, and have fun."
For BU coach Jack Parker, Friday's semifinal was anything but fun.
"I can't describe how disappointed I was in my team's effort tonight, or lack of such," said Parker. "We had a lot of key guys just disappear. We left Kieran (Millan, BU's goaltender) out to dry a number of times.
"They didn't have to work for anything. We just turned it over and gave it to them. We gave up opportunity after opportunity," he said. "We looked like we were afraid to lose. We looked like we were trying not to lose, instead of trying to win, from the get-go. That was a bad frame of mind."
Still, BU got off to an impressive start, when Alex Chiasson gave the Terriers a 1-0 lead at 2:46 with a tremendous individual effort. The junior from Quebec picked the pocket of Maine defenseman Ryan Hegarty, and then raced in on goaltender Dan Sullivan. Just before the Maine defense could close him down, Chiasson slipped the puck between Sullivan's legs for his 15th of the season.
Sullivan kept his team close, however, with successive stellar stops on Evan Rodrigues and Kevin Gilroy. Not to be outdone, BU's Kieran Millan shut down Maine's Brian Flynn on a point-blank bid just past the 16-minute mark.
Maine didn't have to wait long into the second to get even. At the 46-second mark on the middle stanza, Maine's Joey Diamond was stationed in front of Millan when Matt Mangene fired a shot. The rebound wound up on Diamond's stick, and just as the junior shoveled it on net, BU's Ross Gaudet crashed into his goaltender, and both Millan and the puck wound up in the net for a 1-1 score.
BU jumped ahead again at 6:16 of the second, when Matt Nieto picked up the rebound of a Sahir Gill shot and, from a sharp angle, rifled it past a diving Sullivan.
Then O'Neill stepped into the spotlight. The senior from Salem, Mass., tied the score, 2-2, when he made a deft move at the blue line, sidestepping an onrushing BU defender, and then blistered the puck past a screened Millan at 10:22.
Millan followed up with a sparkling sprawling glove save on breakaway by league leading scorer Spencer Abbot as he cut across the crease. However, Alexx Privitera got called for slashing on the play, and Maine went in front on the ensuing power play.
Streaking down the right wing, Abbott spied a trailing O'Neill in the high slot, and fed him a perfect pass. O'Neill gathered the puck, and then snapped a shot low blocker side that beat Millan, and gave the Black Bears a 3-2 lead at 18:30.
In the third, the teams continued to trade goals. Nieto finished off a rush that drew the ire of the Maine faithful, after Abbott and Terrier Sean Escobedo went crashing into the boards behind the BU net, leaving the Maine player out of commission. Coming back up ice, Nieto took a pass from Adam Clendening and slipped the puck past Sullivan's blocker at 4:03.
Abbott left the ice, and did not return. Whitehead said his star forward looks doubtful for the championship game.
"If he does not play, obviously that's not a good thing for us," said the Maine coach. "But we'll adapt. We adapted in the third period, but adapting in a 60-minute game is a different story. He's certainly one of the best players in the league, one of the top players in the country. So, obviously, you don't necessarily replace a guy like that. Other guys will have to pick up the slack, if he's not playing. Which it appears he won't."
Maine quickly responded to Nieto's strike. Not three minutes later, Maine's Mark Anthoine recaptured the lead for the Black Bears on a power-play goal. With BU's Justin Courtnall in the box for holding, the Terriers defense was unable to clear to puck. Anthoine, intercepting the clearing attempt, spun and fired, his wrister beating Millan high glove side at 7:43. The goal, said Parker, was a "backbreaker." Whitehead agreed.
"It was a potential turning point. It could have been the deciding point if they kept that momentum," said Whitehead. "The opportunity on the power play gave us a chance to recapture the momentum ourselves. When Mark scored, they suddenly looked tired."
Sullivan made two more outstanding last-minute stops on Chiasson and Nieto, and then Diamond sealed the win. Maine's Hegarty floated a beautiful pass behind the BU defense to a waiting Diamond, and the junior guided the puck into the empty net for the final margin.
"It wasn’t a good night for us," said Parker. "It was good night for Maine. I thought they played pretty well. I don't think that was their best hockey, to tell them the truth. They didn’t have to play that hard to beat us tonight."
Which had to bother former Terrier Bill O'Neill just a bit. Last February, when asked who he would root for when Maine and BU faced off at Agganis Arena for a two-game set, the elder O'Neill replied candidly: "You've got to root for your son, right?"
On Friday, the son came through with flying colors. And the O'Neill household, which has already celebrated one major milestone this season – Bill O'Neill won his 500th game as head coach at Salem State this year – will be pulling for another one on Saturday. Asked which celebration will mean more to his father, the younger O'Neill didn't hesitate.
"He'll tell you this championship," said Will O'Neill. "I'm so proud of my dad. This is so important to him, and means so much for him too."
For once, Bill O'Neill won't have mixed allegiances. After all, it's a lock that the Terrier will be rooting for BU's long-time rival to come up on the short end. But expect the BC Eagles to have something to say about the outcome Saturday night.