Until last night, I had never seen UMass beat BC in hockey.
Now, that’s not to say that it hasn’t happened in recent memory. I vividly remember seeing a raucous Mullins Center, behind then-freshman goaltender Jonathan Quick, shock top-ranked BC on a NESN game, back when I was still a wee lad deciding whether or not to put myself in mountains of debt to go to BU or Syracuse (both with elite programs in hockey and basketball, respectively) or to suck it up and “settle” for, ahem, state school. Flash forward to my freshman year at UMass – stupid, foolish me decided “hey, I’ve got plenty of time left here” and decided to forego what woulda been my first ever BC-UMass game and, instead, celebrate my 19th birthday with some friends up at Southern New Hampshire U. Sure, good times were had, but finding out about an epic 2-1 win over the Eagles via text message, while welcome news, made me regret leaving campus just a smidge.
UMass would notch a couple of wins at Conte over the course of the next season-and-a-half, but the road-ready hockey fanatic of today was nowhere to be found. (Indeed, I think my first road UMass experience came at Agganis during my junior year; I didn’t venture inside Conte until the HEA Playoffs a year later.) Again, it was awesome how competitive the two programs had become, but damnit, I wanted to see a win in person.
My junior year, the day before a highly-anticipated showdown with the then-#4 Eagles on campus, I was hanging out in front of Brett with a few friends when I got the phone call that my uncle Timmy had passed away down in New York. I was in the basement of a family member I barely know, listening on a choppy radio feed, when Casey Wellman netted the game-winner in OT in what is possibly the greatest hockey game ever played at the Bill. I was there for the similarly-epic last-second comeback win against UNH (the “Boehm goes the dynamite” game), which to this day is my favorite memory in that building. But with all due respect to the Wildcats, it just wasn’t the same as beating BC, the school I’d hated as long as I could remember, first as a fledgling college hockey fan introduced through BU and then as the school that arguably gets the coldest of snobby shoulders from the elitists on the Heights.
After that, the well dried up. UMass played BC 12 consecutive times after that, including back-to-back Hockey East Quarterfinals, and almost every single game played out the same way: BC flexing its muscle, UMass sticking around, and the Eagles pulling out a 2 or 3 goal win without seeming to have tried. The exception, of course, was that infamous game at the Mullins a few years back where the Minutemen were ranked ahead of the Eagles, had the entire campus behind them, and came out and got positively waxed 7-1. It was the only time in that stretch where UMass clearly looked like the better team on paper coming in, and it was especially painful, but what hurt the most for this fan is that, after years of dominance, BC’s days of easy wins against this team finally looked to be over. But alas, 12-0-0.
Expectations yesterday were at an all-time low. Derek and I trekked over to Durham on Friday night to watch a miserable 60 minutes of hockey in which the Minutemen rotated in two different cardboard cutouts of goaltenders and couldn’t beat a dreadfully-shaky goaltender to save their lives. It was a fun trip to see Lake Whitt for the first time, and we (almost disappointingly) didn’t get shit from a single home fan, but then again, what would they say that we didn’t already know? UNH looked awful for long stretches of time, and they STILL managed to put up a touchdown. The offense scratched together three goals, but despite a “live free or die” approach from the officials (the first penalty came late in the 2nd period), there was no building of any kind of momentum except the negative for these guys. A nice pass here, a good move there, and then it was time to fire the puck directly into DiGirolomo’s chest and hope he somehow dropped it. Which he did, a few times, but the point was clear: after that falling-backwards goal by Henrion with 5 seconds in the period, the team basically signed out, just like it did last weekend when things started to go sour against what we now know (thanks, Lowell) to be an overrated BU squad. It made me question what all this Navy SEAL business in the offseason is actually accomplishing. The slightest bit of adversity, and this team falls apart at the seams – and remember, the point of that training, grueling as it looked, was to make the guys mentally tougher. They were anything but in the past two games.
(**Side note, because I don’t feel like talking about that UNH game ever again. Mastalerz started and looked pretty shaky. Then again, what the hell is Toot starting the kid in his first career game in one of the more intimidating venues in college hockey? Why not Tegs? And then what was with the goalie swapping? These are things I’m glad we don’t have to really talk about this week, but we can’t pretend they didn’t happen at all.)
Who could blame anyone for looking at Saturday night’s matchup and penciling – nay, penning – in an easy win for the Eagles? But hey, we’re masochists. You could even say UMassochists, although please don’t, what an awful pun I have made. It’s homecoming weekend, damnit, and we already had our tickets, and crazier things have happened, right? Though I wasn’t please to see Boyle starting in net, I had this funny feeling about this game, and I put myself in (ew) the shoes of a BC fan. “This is a reverse lock. This has ‘trap game’ written all over it.”
I was right.
The Minutemen played likely their finest game since the two-game sweep at Alfond Arena that temporarily rescued their season in ’09-10. The offense used its speed to mitigate those gigantic, skilled defensemen that BC has built their program around. The D, fueled by the spark of young Mike Busillo’s debut, the best game by far of Oleg Yevenko’s young career, and the continued strong play of guys like Hanley and Allen and Shea, smothered the BC offense, won battles for loose pucks, threw their bodies around and played the physical game I was hoping they’d play at Conte a few weeks back, and generally made life more difficult for the Eagles than it had been all season. And while I doubt we saw the best BC has to offer last night, I certainly don’t feel like they mailed it in at all either. The Minutemen legitimately outplayed them in key moments and did all the little things they’ve failed to do in weeks past.
The crowd had to be part of it, too. I’ve been effusive in my praise of the Mullins Maniacs this season, but it has to be said – they’re rounding in shape nicely. The fans are into the game all the way through, they generally know when to chant things, the guys at the front of the student section seem to be a rotating, rowdy bunch that is far more conducive to a loud student section than the typical “row of puck sluts that gets disinterested and leaves halfway through the 2nd” that we’re used to. I heard only one attempt at a “Fuck BC” that was quickly stifled. I’m cool with “I believe that we will win” just for its infectiousness and positive vibes, even if our Durham trip showed that we’re not even the only Hockey East school doing it. I’m psyched that Oleg finally played well enough to warrant singing “O-leg, O-leg-o-leg-o-leeeeg!” a la Martin Nolet, although he’s got a long way to go before he’s half the player Marty was. And hey, we didn’t get a Noise Meter until the very end, when everyone was loud anyway. I am sad that my strategy of singing a different White Stripes song (not “Seven Nation Army”) during BC power plays only worked for three successful rounds (“Apple Blossom” was the one that snapped the streak). And I’m just slightly concerned that a fellow alum (our good friend Matt, aka “Goggles”) was the catalyst for many of the chants (surely we can find some current students with loud voices, right?) But overall, the student section was the best I’ve seen it in some time, and they were rewarded. It was definitely surreal, and almost magical (yes damnit I said magical) that the Minutemen actually put a game away with an empty-netter, and the emotion in the air as Boyle was mobbed by his teammates is something I haven’t seen in a long time at the Bill. The last comparable moment for me as a UMass fan was Vinson beating Memphis a few years back at the Garden. That’s all well and good, but it’s creating endearing moments like this weekend that students will remember and will keep them coming back to games with positive attitudes. No matter how bad things may get, anything really is possible in sports. That’s why we’re fans.
So where does this put UMass going forward? In the big picture, it’s a 2-point weekend. The Minutemen are still 1-4-2 in Hockey East with 20 league games to go. But it sure as fuck beats being 0-5-2. And the road ahead finally gets a lot easier, with a very winnable stretch of Hockey East games on the docket, starting with a second chance at Northeastern this weekend. The Huskies are a prime example of a team that, just a year ago, started off terribly and finished strong to make a nice late run. The Minutemen need to model themselves after that path. Now, we all know the flip side of “anything is possible,” namely that the boys let this success go to their heads and come out flat again next weekend. But we’d like to think that this, their first win in their last 32 games against Hockey East teams not named Lowell or Vermont, is the springboard they’ve desperately needed.
So far I’ve witnessed two things this season that I never saw in my four years at UMass: a hat trick, and now a win over BC. You know what I did see when I was a student? Year after year of strong starts and horrid finishes. Maybe this is the year that we see the opposite. Hey, the “Wait a second…we WON?!” tag is out of retirement, and Little Dude invited us to a house party. You never know.