It was a scene that bordered on the bizarre. Moments after his team swept Merrimack in the Hockey East quarterfinals, just before he left the ice, Boston University coach Jack Parker was hugging the on-ice officials. Most notably, he embraced Tim Bennedetto, the long-time Hockey East referee who -- like many referees -- had sparred with Parker over the years, sometimes heatedly.
"They all know that I'm nuts on the bench sometimes. It's nothing personal," said Parker, who announced his retirement on March 11. "When the game is over, the game is over. I think these guys give their best effort. They're trying to do as good a job as they can for the teams on the ice, and for the most part they do. And if they don't, I might comment on it.
"I've known Timmy since he was a rookie in the league, and he's been a terrific referee for all these years. I've always respected his work," he said. "I might be yelling at him this weekend, who knows? But I think he's a sincere guy who goes out there every night trying to give you his best effort."
That moment speaks volumes about the tight-knit college hockey community, and the mutual respect between programs that personifies Hockey East. However, fans shouldn't anticipate any pleasantries once the puck drops for the league semifinals this Friday at Boston's TD Garden. What they can expect is every team's best effort, given that the top four seeds in the tightest league race in memory -- with only two points separating first place from fifth -- are playing.
The two semifinals present a number of interesting contrasts, almost as noteworthy as the sight of Jack Parker bear-hugging a referee. The marquee match, signified by the late start, has longtime rivals second-seed Boston College (22-10-4) and third-seed Boston University (20-15-2) squaring off.
"It's a little unusual that we haven't seen [BC] in so long. It seems like a long time ago when we last faced them in a home-and-home in early December," said Parker, the result of BU getting ousted from February's Beanpot Tournament by Northeastern. "In general, I think that both teams are playing pretty well and both teams usually bring out the best in each other. I know that the two games we played in December were both pretty good hockey games."
Parker is on borrowed time, as his Terriers are a classic bubble team in terms of the NCAA field of 16. While the Terriers still might squeak into the NCCAs even if they lose on Friday, Parker doesn't want to take any chances.
"Our situation is, win and continue, lose and go home," he said. "BC's situation is not quite the same. If they lose, they wait to see where they go in the national tournament. We have to win this game to get in the national tournament, and maybe even win the tournament to get in the national tournament. So we have a little more at stake."
The Eagles, meanwhile, are looking for their fourth straight Hockey East championship, and sixth in the last eight years. Their fourth straight trip to the NCAAs is a lock, due to their No. 4 national ranking. But they'll have to play Friday's semifinal without their own legendary coach, Jerry York, behind the bench. York suffered a second detached retina of his right eye last weekend, and underwent surgery on Monday.
However, associate head coaches Mike Cavanaugh and Greg Brown said this week that they expect the Eagles to adapt, particularly since York lost time earlier this winter with the same condition. York also missed BC's 4-1 quarterfinal-clinching win over Vermont last Saturday.
"If we had not gone through it earlier in the year, it probably would have been a lot more to handle," said Cavanaugh. "But since we had experienced it with the UNH weekend and with UMass and Northeastern, we had a pretty good idea of how it was going to work and how we handled things. I thought for the most part, it was as seamless as it could be on Saturday."
Brown agreed. "Especially for the kids, since they had all done that before, they didn't miss a beat," he said. "The seniors picked right up and told the other guys that we'll be fine, and they had a great attitude going into the game. There wasn't a lot of confusion at all because it had happened once before."
The Eagles also have a goaltender who has been there before. Unlike the other semifinalists, which are all starting freshman goaltenders, the Eagles are countering with senior Parker Milner (2.52 goals against average, .915 save percentage), the reigning MVP of the NCAA tournament.
"It certainly helps him that he's played in that building before, and he's played well in that building," said Cavanaugh of Milner. "But when it comes down to Friday, it's going to be what goaltender executes best, and what team plays the most solid in front of him. That's going to be the biggest determining factor."
The Terriers will counter with Sean Maguire (2.59 GAA, .924 save percentage), a freshman from British Columbia who has looked like the second coming of Kieran Millan -- the freshman goaltender who led BU to a national championship in 2009 -- since assuming full-time duties in net. In the quarterfinals against Merrimack, Maguire raised his game to another level, with a .958 save percentage and 1.50 GAA, including a 30-save shutout in the opening-game victory.
He will have to stay hot, given BC's firepower. Up front, Boston College is again loaded, boasting three 40-plus point scorers and the nation's second-ranked offense, tallying 3.44 goals a game. By comparison, BU has produced 3.08 goals a game, good for 17th nationally, and led by freshman Danny O'Regan (14 goal, 22 assists, 36 points) and rejuvenated junior Matt Nieto (18-17-35).
"He played pretty well most of the first half but he wasn't putting the puck in the net," said Parker of Nieto. "He was squeezing his stick too hard and was looking for goals. He really wasn't playing the type of game that he's got to play to be effective for us. Now, all of a sudden, he's one of the top goal-scorers in the league and he's one of the top pointmen. His line is as good of a line as there is in college hockey with O'Regan and [Evan] Rodrigues. I think a big reason for that has been the re-emergence of Matt Nieto as a star in this league."
The Eagles will be led by sophomore Johnny Gaudreau (20-29-49), the MVP of last year's Hockey East tournament and the league's leading scorer this past season, as well as Steven Whitney (25-18-43) and captain Pat Mullane (16-25-41). But both squads have gotten production throughout their respective line-ups through the second half of the season, which makes handicapping the 262nd meeting between the teams a difficult task.
"Our third line is playing much better right now and I noticed the same thing holds true for BC's third line," said Parker. "The [Patrick] Brown line has been chipping in with goals and playing really well. I think it's probably for the same reason; they're playing much more now. They're getting more ice time, they've earned that ice time and they're more comfortable in the swing of things."
Though BC took the season series, two games to one, none of the three coaches expect past results to have any bearing on Friday's outcome.
"They always seem to be playing well when they're playing us, so that's not really a concern of ours," said BC's Cavanaugh. "I know that they've won four in a row. They are rolling along here, and playing well as a team. But when they play Boston College, they could have lost four in a row, and we're still going to get their best game. The old adage is -- and it's a cliché -- 'You can throw the records out the window when these two teams play.' I think it is evident from our past games, and I think it will hold true this weekend. You're going to see the best from both teams on Friday night."