Notre Dame men’s hockey vaulted to major sleeper status after knocking off and shutting down Boston College in the last game of the regular season, but it was BC that looked comatose on Friday at Conte Forum. The Irish stifled the Eagles early and throttled them late, embarrassing BC like it hasn’t been embarrassed since losing to Holy Cross at home the day after Thanksgiving. Four consecutive Notre Dame goals in the third period pushed the final to 7-2 in the first game of the best-of-three quarterfinal, matching the biggest margin of defeat suffered this season by BC. The loss was BC’s first in the Hockey East quarterfinal in 10 years.
“We just got beat soundly by a better hockey team tonight than we were,” BC head coach Jerry York said. “We got our work cut out for us and we understand that. Only objective now is to get the series to Sunday.”
The Eagles weren’t getting their usual barrage of chances early in the game, but they saw their fair share, considering the opponent. Starting with a Quinn Smith missed sitter at the left post, BC generated quality looks and took what the Irish defense gave, even if that wasn’t much at even strength as the period wore on.
BC capitalized on the game’s first man advantage late in the first, after York iced a power-play unit with four freshmen. The postseason baptism-by-fire appeared to work, at least momentarily, when freshman Ryan Fitzgerald pounced on his own rebound and potted a glove-side goal past Irish goalie Steven Summerhays. Classmates Austin Cangelosi and Adam Gilmour picked up the assists on the goal, which gave the Eagles a 1-0 lead—a lead that meant more in this game than others, because the defense-powered Irish were 2-8-1 this season when trailing after one period, and 3-9-1 when giving up the first goal.
“I thought [the] first period was a ballgame,” York said. “Then they broke it open in the second in the third.”
Not to be overlooked were the waning moments of the first frame, because Stephen John’s 4-on-4 goal with nine seconds left rendered those previous statistics moot. After Irish forward Thomas DiPauli won a battle in the right corner, he hit T.J. Tynan on in the right circle, who then drew the attention of BC defenseman Steve Santini and subsequently fed Johns across the slot for an easy one-timer.
Santini left Johns because Fitzgerald failed to backcheck hard enough to occupy Tynan. Notre Dame committed both of those offenses with staggering irregularity. Even in that opening frame, when a BC forward found space, there were nearly always impeding layers of the Irish brigade.
It is rarely evident that BC is the youngest team in the country, but breakdowns like that one highlighted that youth, especially juxtaposed against the defensive discipline of a Notre Dame team with 10 seniors.
“When our forwards are backchecking as hard as they were tonight and allowing the defense to have good gaps, it’s almost impossible for a team to come in and gain speed on us and get us off our game,” Johns said. “When everyone is playing at the same caliber and same level that we always preach about, we feel as if we’re one of the better teams in the country.”
“People like to think we’re a defensive team, but [we] defend with a purpose, and that creates offense,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s about puck possession, it’s about making plays in transition, but you can’t have transition without defense.”
Jackson’s team executed what he echoed, scoring seven straight goals, including Johns’ initial tally. Johns added another 2:50 into the second, when BC failed to account for the defenseman while on the penalty kill. The alternate captain streaked in from the neutral zone in secondary transition and beat Demko off a feed from Vince Hinostroza.
Ten minutes later, Hinostroza pounced on a puck behind the net that BC defenseman Mike Matheson let skitter through his legs and hit Mario Lucia in the left circle, who immediately deposited a wrist shot to double the Irish lead.
BC’s best chance to turn the game’s tide was on a late power play in the second period, but the man-advantage was only memorable for BC defenseman Ian McCoshen’s whiff on a one-timer from the point.
Down two goals to start the final period, the Eagles played defeated and Notre Dame made sure of it. The Irish stuck to their style, and that structure allowed them to humiliate their hosts.
“A lot of it attributes to the maturity of our team,” Johns said of his team’s consistency throughout. “We have a lot of seniors on our team, and we’ve been in a spot like this. As soon as we scored the fourth and fifth goal, we said ‘next goal’s ours, keep the pedal down.’ We have a lot of confidence right now, and if we all play together and with the same jam, we can beat anybody in the country.”
The sixth goal, scored by DiPauli, came both in transition and at peak embarrassment for the No. 1 seeded Eagles. DiPauli carried the puck into the offensive zone 1-on-1 with Matheson, who finished the night minus-4, and stopped just shy of undressing BC’s top defenseman. Matheson involuntarily turned around, and by the time he spotted DiPauli again, DiPauli had deked Demko to the ground and the score was about to be 6-1.
Notre Dame’s stout defense powered its sleeper status, but that goal and the final score demonstrated its deadliness. Whether that lethality impairs the Eagles’ Hockey East chances or their collective confidence has yet to be seen.