By Dan Rubin
BOSTON, MA – It’s just not enough for Cam Atkinson to lead Boston College. It’s just not enough to graduate with Beanpot titles, Hockey East titles, and NCAA rings. And it’s just not enough to graduate as one of the most prolific, legendary players in Eagle history.
Atkinson scored two goals, including the game winner, as the Eagles clinched their third Hockey East crown in four years with a wild 5-3 victory over the Merrimack Warriors before over 14,000 fans at TD Garden on Saturday night.
“With the last two teams standing, the game was fitting for this environment,” said BC head coach Jerry York. “It was a good structured game from my position on the bench watching. Merrimack was very strong in different areas, and we were very strong. There were a lot of battles with back-and-forth goals.”
The win positions the Eagles for a potential top seed in the Northeast Regional in Manchester, NH, as well as a chance at the #1-seed overall in the NCAA Tournament. It also positions the Eagles for a run at their third championship trifecta, having won the Beanpot, HEA, and national title in 2008 and 2010 as well.
After an initial first ten minutes where the only action consisted of dueling chants by Warrior and Eagle fans in the balcony, the teams exploded for three goals over the course of a minute and a half. BC jumped on board first at 9:15 when Pat Mullane stripped the Merrimack defense deep in Warrior territory. He made two deke moves and let the puck slide right through Joe Cannata’s five-hole, giving the Eagles a soft 1-0 lead.
Merrimack responded almost immediately. Winning the ensuing draw, the defense passed up to their third line on the ice. Carter Madsen passed to the right wing from the center, finding the stick of Ryan Flanigan. The junior wristed an absolute laser beam top shelf, rocketing past John Muse and rattling the water bottle to tie things up 26 seconds later.
It took another minute before Boston College responded in their own right. Cam Atkinson, who has been there for BC so many times this year, found Brian Gibbons in the slot. Cannata was off balance and went for a kick save that opened the five-hole up wide. Gibbons slid it through, putting BC up 2-1.
The game then fell back into a little bit more of an easier pace, although both teams had golden opportunities. For Merrimack, they had an opportunity on the power play when Joe Whitney went to the box for tripping. The Warriors had three rebounds that Muse shut the door on, and the fourth went through the net minder only after the offense ran him over. The goal was denied after review, and the sides evened up as Mike Collins went to the box for slashing.
When the penalty to Collins expired, Cannata misplayed the puck behind his net right to the stick of the awaiting Whitney. But Cannata made a Hail Mary dive across the crease and paddled the puck away to keep the game 2-1.
Dodging that bullet, Merrimack got their chance when Mullane went to the box for holding with 50 seconds left. The line of Collins, Cucci, and Stephane da Costa knifed through a typically rock solid BC defense for cross-ice passing. Da Costa found Cucci from right to left, and Cucci found Collins on the right side. Collins elevated it past Muse to tie things up heading into the locker room, 2-2. In a period that sometimes felt like the Eagles were going for the early kill, the Warriors had plenty of life.
“Merrimack has four lines that can go,” said Atkinson. “They have a lot of guys who are talented. Da Costa is a great player.”
“It starts and ends with the players,” said Warrior head coach Mark Dennehy. “If you have great players, you’re going to win. We have a group of guys who come from programs who know how to win, and they’re great people.”
The Eagles got their first golden opportunity of the second period halfway through when Merrimack went to the box for two men, giving BC a 5-on-3 advantage. Madsen got two minutes for hooking, and with 40 seconds remaining on his, Kyle Bigos got the gate for slashing. Cannata backed his defense with three to four tremendous saves, and the Warriors gained enough momentum to hold BC scoreless despite some great offensive looks.
That “bend-don’t-break” attitude translated into a huge shot discrepancy in favor of BC in the second, but Merrimack kept it even where it mattered most – on the scoreboard. Although they were outshot 14-8 through the first 17 minutes of the period, BC gave a Steven Whitney hooking penalty with 27 seconds left, and the game remained tied through two frames, 2-2.
The Warriors opened up the third period with a flourish, peppering Muse but were unable to score, rattling off five quality shots in the first three minutes. One, a Type-A challenge from the slot, Cucci, handcuffed the senior, but he deflected it with his shoulder to keep the score tied. Muse would get another huge break at the seven minute mark, when his defense misplayed the puck back through his crease behind his body. It barely missed crossing into the net, avoiding a potential disaster for the Eagles.
Merrimack seemingly outplayed BC for the first ten minutes of the third period, but just before the halfway mark, the Eagles put the game winner on the board. Joe Whitney made a deke move that Cannata made a highlight reel save on, but Cam Atkinson, in the same fashion he’s done throughout his collegiate career, slammed the rebound behind the Warrior goalie. BC led, 3-2, and set their sights on the Hockey East crown.
With 6:36 left, Joe Whitney went back to the sin bin for elbowing, giving Merrimack new life. Less than 10 seconds into the frame, Flanigan took a shot that Muse stopped. But the second chance slipped behind Muse to tie things up late, exploding much of the 14,000-plus in attendance that were rooting for the Warriors.
The game went to a completely other level when Atkinson did it again with 5:07 remaining. Taking a shot from the top part of the faceoff circle, he beat Cannata top shelf to give BC a 4-3 lead. “The puck came right into my wheelhouse,” he said.
15 seconds after that, Flanigan was hooked by Philip Samuelsson on a near breakaway. Flanigan crashed into the cage (Muse leaped over him by doing his best Carl Lewis impression), and Merrimack went back on the man advantage with about 4:40 to go.
BC killed the advantage and found Samuelsson for a breakout when he exploded out of the box. Coming in alone, Jordan Heywood made the only move he had, hooking him down and giving BC a power play with under three minutes to go. The Eagles used the opportunity to set up the icing on the cake, when Brian Dumoulin wristed it in from the point. The insurance goal was just what BC needed to clinch the crown, the automatic bid, the assumed-top seed, and the conference dynasty.
“We just tried to win each shift,” said Whitney after the game. “We just kept going back to the bench saying ‘Win each shift.’”
While this game certainly meant the world to these teams, it had to go into perspective that both will play for the national championship. The NCAA releases the seeding’s on Sunday morning, and it’s not a question of if these schools are going dancing, it’s where and when. BC is almost assuredly a #1 seed, and Merrimack is also a lock. So both still have a chance to grab the biggest prize in college hockey – a national championship banner.