It was a fairytale season for Boston University until 10:19 p.m. Saturday night at the TD Garden.
Against all odds, a team that had gone 10-21-4 the season before came out in 2014-15 and went 28-8-5, the fifth-best turnaround in NCAA Division 1 history.
This BU team, the youngest team in the nation, won every championship it played in – every championship, that is, except for the biggest one: the 2015 Frozen Four. The Terriers lost the national championship game to Providence, 4-3, thanks to a bad bounce and a team-wide mental collapse in the third period.
There was a lot of talk about the young Terriers playing a nervous game early on. BU struggled in the first periods of the Beanpot games and the Hockey East semifinals. The defense, a unit featuring four 18-year-olds expected to play big roles, was prone to early mishaps in each of those games.
On Saturday night, though, the 18-year-old skaters were not the problem. It was junior goaltender Matt O’Connor, the player slated as the top goaltending free agent out of the NCAA this season.
O’Connor had a rough game from the start. He flubbed two of his first three saves and tried to fall on pucks that were not underneath him. The only reason Providence did not score right away was because its shots went wide.
The first Friar goal came off a rebound via defenseman Anthony Florentino at 9:25 in the first period, but the Terriers took the pressure off O’Connor by holding PC at bay for the rest of the period while dominating at the other end.
Just over three minutes after Providence’s tally, BU scored two goals four seconds apart to tilt all momentum in its favor. The period ended with the Terriers leading, 2-1, while holding an 18-6 advantage in shots.
“We came out the same way we’ve been playing all season,” senior Cason Hohmann told reporters afterward. “Got pucks behind the defensemen. Dial down low. Won a lot of faceoffs, a lot of goals off faceoffs tonight. So that was huge for us.”
As the game went on, O’Connor seemed to settle down at times, only to struggle at other times. PC evened the score with a power-play goal in the second period, and Hohmann gave BU the 3-2 advantage when he beat Friars netminder Jon Gillies at 11:36 in the second.
So despite O’Connor’s issues, BU still had a lead after two periods, and the Terriers were 19-0-0 in the 2014-15 season when leading after two. The third period tended to be BU’s best period, so against all odds, the young-but-talented Terriers seemed to be on the verge of a national title to complete their fairytale season.
But fairytales are just that: tales, not reality. In reality, the Terriers had a rough third period in the semifinal against North Dakota, letting a 4-1 lead slim down to 4-3, but ultimately survived. In reality, the Terriers had a worse third period in the final against Providence and did not survive.
O’Connor blew the game for BU. Providence defenseman Tom Parisi dumped the puck in with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation, and O’Connor should have been able to easily handle it and pass it off to a teammate. Instead, he dropped it and kicked it into his own net.
The most important play for a goalie after a blooper like that is the save following the blown play. On his next save, O’Connor was unable to catch a shot. Instead, the puck bounced off his glove and back into play.
It was clear that O’Connor was mentally out of the game, and BU was doomed from that moment on.
O’Connor’s teammates and coaches did not blame him for the loss, of course. They said what everyone says in that situation, that you win as a team and lose as a team, and they had plenty of missed opportunities they could have taken advantage of throughout the game.
That is true, to an extent. BU did not have a great night on special teams. It went scoreless on its only power play and mustered just one shot on net while allowing Providence to go 1-for-3 on the man advantage and accumulate 10 shots on net.
Although BU dominated 5-on-5 play throughout the first 40 minutes of the game, it struggled in the third period.
O’Connor was not the only BU player who was flustered after scoring on himself. The skaters struggled on faceoffs and suddenly could not break into the offensive zone. Even Jack Eichel looked out of character. He lost puck battles and skated into his own teammate at one point.
But BU never would have been in a position to lose the game had O’Connor not made the biggest mistake of his collegiate career.
“Everyone in this locker room deserves a lot better,” said O’Connor, who made the rare choice to talk to the media after the game. “They deserve to be hoisting the national championship right now. Sports are tough.“
So the fairytale season comes to a close without the happy ending the Terriers so desired. But despite the initial heartbreak, there are a lot of positives BU can take out of the game moving forward.
The majority of this Terrier team will be back. BU’s two seniors — Evan Rodrigues and Hohmann – will be gone, and Eichel will probably play in the NHL next year.
There is a good chance junior forward Danny O’Regan forgoes his senior season to turn pro, meaning BU will possibly lose its entire top line, but it will likely lose only one other forward (Hohmann) from the other three lines.
The defensive corps, let by junior captain Matt Grzelyck, will likely all return. O’Connor might still leave for the NHL, but instead of being a sure goner, he now has to decide if he wants to end his NCAA career on a sour note.
Overall, however, after feeling the pain of this loss for a little while, the Terriers have a very bright future ahead, especially now that they know what it takes to win a national championship game. BU’s fairytale 2014-15 season is over, but there is an opportunity for a great sequel in 2015-16.
“Sometimes experience is the best remedy for situations that we were in tonight,” said BU coach David Quinn. “And we don’t have a lot of it. To go from the year we had last year to be that close to winning a national title is an incredible accomplishment.
“I would love to be sitting here as the national champion. I’d like to have our guys have smiles on their faces instead of tears in their eyes, but sometimes it’s a process. We’re close, and I don’t think many guys around our team thought we were going to lose tonight. I just love the way we played from the get-go. And, again, sometimes experience is the best remedy to handle a one-goal lead in the third period of a national championship game.
“We don’t have a lot of it.”
Photo by Michelle Jay/Along The Boards