BOSTON -- Defense might win championships, but offense makes for fireworks, and there were plenty on display Friday night at Boston College's Conte Forum. When the smoke cleared, the Eagles (22-10-3) had eked out a 6-5 roller-coaster win over UMass (18-17-0), to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series.
UMass coach Don Cahoon admittedly wanted to steer clear of a slugfest with the high-powered Eagles.
"We're not going to go toe-to-toe with Boston College on that front," Cahoon said beforehand. "We need to compete and play smart and be on the right side of the puck and play with a passion that's going to allow us to hang in there with them."
The passion and effort might have been there for UMass, but the team speed of the No. 4-ranked Eagles (the No. 2 seed in Hockey East) constantly put Cahoon's troops on the wrong side of the puck. The result was a surprisingly high-scoring affair, with the Eagles building a three-goal lead by the end of the second stanza that the Minutemen couldn't overcome.
"I don't think either coaching staff was ecstatic the way the game was played," Cahoon said.
Interestingly enough, both Cahoon and his BC counterpart, Jerry York, went into the match praising their respective team's recent defensive efforts. But Friday night's donnybrook was fueled by turnovers and ill-timed penalties, and the crowd of 2,888 got exactly what Cahoon wanted to avoid: a toe-to-toe heavyweight bout.
In the first period, the marquee players for both teams took center stage. BC's leading goal scorer, Cam Atkinson, appeared to put the Eagles up 1-0 only 36 seconds into the contest, when he swooped behind the UMass net and tucked the puck between the left post and Minutemen goalie Paul Dainton. However, after review, the goal was disallowed, as officials ruled that Dainton was impeded by a UMass player who had been pushed into the crease by BC's Joe Whitney.
Undaunted, Atkinson went back to work, and was rewarded less than three minutes later. Standing unmarked at the right faceoff dot, the sophomore from Connecticut took a short feed from Whitney and unleashed a laser wrist shot over Dainton's glove.
At 9:13, UMass answered when two of its top stars, James Marcou and Justin Braun, teamed up during a 5-on-3 power play, with Braun converting a slick pass from the junior playmaker. The Eagles regained the lead on Atkinson's second strike at 14:39. Lurking at the left post during a BC power play, Atkinson picked up a Ben Smith rebound and slipped it past a sprawling Dainton.
The pyrotechnics hit a crescendo in the second period. Just before the four-minute mark, UMass forward T.J. Syner was Johnny-on-the-spot, corralling a deflected pass from Kevin Czepiel and blistering a low shot past Parker Milner's left pad to knot the score at 2-2. Boston College then ripped off three unanswered goals in a two-minute span to put UMass on the ropes. At the 6:18 mark, Rangers draft pick Chris Kreider absolutely blew past the UMass defense on the left wing, cut across the slot and tucked the puck behind Dainton's left pad.
"He's such a strong skater," York said of the freshman. "When he gets a step on the defenseman, even half a step, he's hard to contain."
A minute later, BC's Barry Almeida finished off a textbook 2-on-1, collecting a perfect dish from senior Matt Price and burying the puck with authority. At 8:22, Atkinson completed his half-game hat trick, taking a feed from Steven Whitney and rifling a snap shot from the left faceoff dot that beat Dainton clean over the right shoulder for a power-play tally and a commanding 5-2 BC lead.
Milner made the lead stand up with several sparkling stops, none better than stuffing UMass marksman Casey Wellman on the doorstep at the halfway point. However, Milner couldn't stop Wellman at the 17:15 mark. The high-scoring sophomore, left unmarked at the left post during a UMass power play, slammed home a pass from Marcou to cut the deficit to two. Less than two minutes later, BC returned the favor with a near identical power-play strike. Atkinson, at the bottom of the left faceoff circle, fired a pass through the top of the crease that a streaking Steven Whitney tapped home to reclaim the Eagle's three-goal cushion.
The third period opened with UMass showing it had every intention to "hang in there" with the faster Eagles. As Milner tried to extricate himself from a pile of players in his crease, UMass' Martin Nolet stepped into a pass from Czepiel and launched a rocket that found the back of the BC net. Twenty seconds later, Marcou skated out of the left corner from behind the goal line and swept a shot that broke through Milner, bringing UMass to within a goal.
"All of a sudden, UMass took the momentum away from us with those two goals in the third period, and turned it into a nail-biter," York said. "That's a formidable team for us to play."
York, in a break from tradition, had started Milner, a freshman, over junior John Muse, and the coach admitted the younger player struggled at times. "But he made some big saves for us at the end," York said.
Unless these two teams play a more disciplined game Saturday, the goalies for both squads can expect to see more fireworks in Game 2.
"It's a whole new ballgame [Saturday] night," Cahoon said. "Hopefully we'll show up and compete."
In other Hockey East quarterfinal action:
No. 3 Boston University 3, No. 6 Merrimack College 2
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy likened his team's game against the defending national champs to David versus Goliath, and when his visiting Warriors took a 2-0 lead, it looked as if the upstarts from Andover might have their upset. However, Jack Parker's BU Terriers righted the ship, scoring the final three goals to notch the win.
No. 1 New Hampshire 7, No. 8 Vermont 4
In a shootout at the UNH corral, the top-seeded Wildcats roared back from a 4-2 deficit to score five unanswered goals, hanging a three-goal loss on the Catamounts in Durham, N.H. UNH captains Bobby Butler and Peter LeBlanc led the Wildcats with three points apiece.
No. 5 UMass Lowell 2, No. 4 Maine 1
The Black Bears, playing without suspended No. 1 netminder Scott Darling, struck first but couldn't hold off the visiting River Hawks, as Lowell took the first game of the series in Orono, Maine. The win marked the first time the River Hawks have beaten the Black Bears in the league playoffs.