Every year, just like the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Beanpot Tournament for college hockey supremacy in Boston offers unique storylines, and the 60th edition of this institution is no different. On Monday, there will be an unmistakable sense of déjà vu at TD Garden, as the opening round mirrors the matchups played on Saturday night three weeks ago.
The good news is that if the Beanpot games live up to their dress rehearsals on Jan. 14, no one at the Garden is going to leave disappointed (except, perhaps, the fans of the losing schools). On that Saturday night in January, Boston College edged Northeastern at Fenway Park 2-1, while Boston University had to come from behind to tag Harvard with a 4-3 loss at the Bright Center.
On Monday, the slate is wiped clean. Records and reputations are put aside. The Beanpot is about pride -- and a little something extra.
"There's nothing like winning a Beanpot. There's nothing like having some bragging rights then and, more importantly, having some bragging rights years later," said BU coach Jack Parker, who has been involved in every Beanpot except one (1969) as a player or a coach since 1966. "Those memories linger longer than a regular-season game or an NCAA game even, unless you win the whole thing. Because with these games, your team is playing in it every single year, and every single year all the alums are there. And you're going to see all the people you played against every year. The uniqueness of that is something special."
All four Beanpot coaches -- Parker, Boston College's Jerry York, Harvard's Ted Donato and Northeastern's Jim Madigan -- played in the historic tournament for their current schools while students. All have held the coveted trophy as players, with York winning in 1965, Parker taking it three times from 1966-68, Madigan twice in 1984 and '85 and Donato once in 1989.
"I already played in my three Beanpots, which is the most I could play because we didn't play our freshman year, and won them all," said Parker. "So I was real happy with the Beanpot when I was a player, and I want my players to have the same feeling."
The tournament remains not only as a bellwether that successful teams use to measure themselves but also as a beacon of hope for underachieving squads looking for an opportunity to turn a season around. The Beanpot contests don't count toward league standings, but they carry a weight and significance that transcends almost any other game.
"The Beanpot has it's own uniqueness and special flavor to it," said Madigan, as his Huskies (11-11-3, 6-11-2 Hockey East) prepare to take on a Boston College team (16-10-1, 12-7-1 HE) that has already clipped NU three times this season. "What has happened in the regular season is the regular season. This is something that's altogether different. It's like a playoff game."
Before the Northeastern-BC match, Harvard (7-6-9, 5-4-7 ECAC) will lock horns with Boston University (16-8-1, 12-6-1 HE) at 5 p.m. The Crimson can be absolutely sure of this much: Monday's semifinal will not end in a tie. That's been a rarity for the Crimson, who have rung up nine ties already this season, one short of the NCAA record. The Beanpot proudly stands by its tradition of sudden-death overtime, which means there will be a decisive winner and loser in both semifinals.
"It's been a little bit of everything, but the majority of them are ties when we've come back and rallied," Donato said about his squad's penchant for stalemates. "I would have loved to have rallied and come back to get the win, but the kids have battled very hard."
The Crimson have proved a resilient bunch -- not many teams rebound from a 4-0 deficit, as Harvard did to beat New Hampshire 7-6 on Nov. 22 -- but the one that got away was a 4-3 loss to BU on Jan. 14. The Crimson carried a 3-1 lead into the second period but couldn't hold it. Donato said they'll need a full 60 to knock off the No. 3 team in the country.
"For two periods, we played very well. In the third period, BU took the play," said Donato. "They were aided by a couple of power plays, but their goaltending was very solid. [Kieran Millan] kept them in the game when we had some chances to put a little bit of distance between us and them on the scoreboard.
"The teams are matched pretty well, but BU has some real firepower. They've got a guy in the net that has won a national championship. But if nothing else, our guys know it will be a great hockey game if we show up and play our best."
Parker sees Monday's semifinal the same way.
"They are two teams that are very similar in a lot of ways," he said. "They have the best power play in the nation. Our power play is one of the best in our own league. We have one of the best penalty kill in our league. Special teams will mean an awful lot in this game.
"Also, I think we're very similar in terms of upperclassmen, number of freshmen, number of seasoned veterans on defense. I think we might have the upper hand in goaltending as far as experience, obviously, with my senior and their freshman, but their freshman [Steve Michalek] is playing very well right now."
Parker said his main concern isn't getting his players up for the game but rather keeping them calm.
"What will I be telling them? I don't need to tell them anything," he said. "It's almost the opposite; let's not get too excited about it. All you have to say is, 'Hey boys, it's Beanpot time.' That's it."
However, bet the house that Parker will remind his troops of last year's consolation game. The Terriers, with 29 Beanpot titles in 59 years, loathe playing the early game on the second Monday in February. Last year, the Terriers allowed the Crimson's Danny Biega and Michael Del Mauro to score in the final four minutes to cap a 5-4 victory, resulting in the first time BU had been swept in the tournament since 1980. The loss put the Terriers into a tailspin they never recovered from, while the Crimson used the victory to build momentum for a stellar late-season run.
The nightcap between Northeastern and No. 5 BC features is a rematch of the Fenway Park game on Jan. 14 and last year's Beanpot final. In both games, the Eagles prevailed by a single goal, which has been a recurring theme between the city squads.
"We've played Boston College three times this year, and they've beaten us all three times by a goal," said Madigan. "Once they beat us in overtime, once they beat us with 2.6 seconds left in regulation, then they beat us over at Fenway 2-1. The Fenway game was special because it was at Fenway Park, but it was a regular-season game and two points in the league. Anytime you play a league game it's important.
"But the Beanpot is 60 years. BC is a team that's had our number over the last little while because of some close games. In the Beanpot final last year, we lost to them in overtime, and then in the Hockey East tournament we lot to them by a goal. So the two teams know each other. They've had the best of us recently, and we're going to try and be on the plus side of a game with them."
Asked what the difference was in those games, Madigan was blunt in his assessment.
"They're a highly skilled, intelligent, veteran hockey club," he said. "They've got players who've been to national championships and Beanpot championships. It's a seasoned group, and they're well-coached."
"We have to play our best game to beat them. We can't expect to not have all the elements of our game not in sync for us to win. That means our compete level has to be strong, our discipline has to be strong, we have to execute our systems. Boston College can win some games on skill alone. We're not that type of team. Playing against a Boston College, we have to play 60 minutes and an error-free game."
Northeastern's task became tougher with the loss of sophomore Cody Ferriero -- the reigning Hockey East Player of the Week and originally a BC recruit -- who underwent season-ending knee surgery Friday.
York was diplomatic when asked about his Eagles' regular-season sweep of the Huskies.
"I think they match us in skill and experience," said York, who has won five Beanpot titles in his 18 years behind the BC bench. "We got bounces. I'm not oblivious to the fact that if the bounces went the other way, we could be looking at the same record in reverse.
"So we have to play smart hockey, especially if it comes down to late in the game, as it always does with us and Northeastern in the past few years. We have to make good decisions and be very smart with the puck. That's one of our keys."
Madigan, NU's first-year coach with ironclad ties to the school's Beanpot glory days -- winning twice as a player and as an assistant on the Huskies last Beanpot championship squad in 1988 -- said his squad has the talent to reverse the curse that has hung over his school for more than two decades, but the team will need to be at its best to have a chance to play for the school's fifth Beanpot crown.
"This tournament has a huge significance in our region, our city, and Northeastern hasn't had success, although we've knocked on the door," he said. "For us, we're just trying to have our kids go out and compete for this year's team and not have to wear the burden of the last 22 years of teams that haven't won. It's not just another game; it's a big game. But we want them to go out and try to enjoy and played relaxed. And if we can do that, we'll play well."
Likewise, York is quick to dispel any talk that the regular-season series will have any effect on Monday's nightcap, as the Eagles eye their 17th Beanpot trophy.
"The Beanpot clearly stands alone in my mind," he said. "We played Northeastern three times, and they were all Hockey East games, and the implications [of those games] were in the standings.
"Now this is a trophy situation and just the history of the Beanpot. I think it's completely different."
No matter how overwhelming the sense among the players, coaches and fans that they've been here before, the magic of the Beanpot is that each year presents a new chapter.
"The Beanpot never gets old," says Donato, whose team is looking for its 11th Beanpot crown and first since 1993. "I love playing it and coaching in it."
Brion O'Connor is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.