BU Terriers finding an identity

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Boston University forwards Nick Bonino and Vinny Saponari didn't even hesitate when asked how much gas they had left in the tank during the third period and overtime on Friday.

"Plenty," Bonino said.

Saponari nodded his agreement.

The Terriers did not, apparently, leave it all out on the ice -- but they certainly came close.

A week after losing at Providence and almost giving away a home game against Merrimack, the Terriers beat Boston College 5-4 in overtime on Friday thanks to the type of effort for which BU coach Jack Parker had been begging all week.

Bonino and Wade Megan scored similarly opportunistic goals in the second period, winning the puck in the corner and maneuvering out front of the net to slip the puck past BC goaltender Parker Milner. From start to finish, with the exception of a third-period lull in which the Eagles rallied from two goals down to tie the game, the Terriers pounced on lazy passes as though the puck belonged to them and them alone.

"BU was very opportunistic during the course of the game," BC coach Jerry York said.

It was an intense, back-and-forth game that might have been as entertaining as any played in Hockey East this season. Television timeouts gave players a chance to catch extra breathers -- Parker even shortened his bench, something he wouldn't have done without the lengthy breaks -- but both teams used third-period timeouts less to discuss strategy than to give top lines a little rest.

"We've been trying to play fast all season," Saponari said. "That's one thing we've been trying to work on -- our pace on the forecheck and on the back-check. Every line, all four lines were going today, and when we've got that going, we're a pretty hard team to break the puck out against."

The only time BU sat back a bit came at the instruction of coach Parker, who made the decision to go to more conservative forecheck -- a prevent defense -- with a two-goal lead in the third period.

The Terriers otherwise showed the type of spark they'd shown first during a Tuesday practice Parker described as "brutal" and later during fight-marred practices on Wednesday and Thursday. Defenseman Eric Gryba reportedly exchanged blows both with Saponari and with Zach Cohen, giving Parker reason to toss him out of practice.

"They got into each other pretty good," Parker said. "That, certainly, got them focused. You practice the way you have to play, and those practices were pretty intense."

Saponari was just the player Parker wanted to see get going. A first-line forward in the
Terriers' last four games, Saponari was replaced by Joe Pereira on the first line on Friday
for reasons Parker made no effort to keep secret. Coming off a season in which he'd scored eight goals, the sophomore hadn't beaten a goaltender since Nov. 13 -- a string of 12 games.

(Saponari scored an empty-net goal last Saturday against Merrimack, but Parker isn't exactly looking for his playmakers to score empty-net goals.)

"I just wanted to, frankly, reward Joey a little bit for the way he's been playing but also to send a message to Vinny that, 'You've got to play harder,' " Parker said.

By the second period, though, Saponari had made his way back to the first line. Part of the reason was a penalty-filled first period in which the teams played 11 of the 20 minutes with one side a man down. The other part of the reason, though, was his effort. He even scored a goal in the final minute of the first period, swatting the puck out of the air after it had been poke-checked away from him.

"We needed to find an identity as a team, and, myself, I know I'm a power forward and a guy that needs to bring energy and play physical and grind in the corners," said Saponari, one of just two Terriers to finish the night with a plus-2 on the scoresheet. "I'm usually pretty consistent both ways, and [Parker] said he wanted me to get back to the basics, basically, and be the solid player I was all of last year."

Said Parker, "The reason why I definitely kept him on that line and will keep him on that line tomorrow is that he played very, very hard tonight."

BU seemed to control play throughout the game, an encouraging sign with first-place New Hampshire awaiting them on Saturday and a late-season run their only hope for defending last season's NCAA title. The two points the Terriers earned when Colby Cohen's pass in front of the net in overtime deflected off a skate and past Milner pulled them within three points of fourth-place Maine and a chance to host a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.

"We know we can still do something with this season," Bonino said. "We've got to prove it to ourselves, and we've got to prove it to everyone else."

Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His email address is brianrmacpherson@gmail.com.