Maybe it was the nine goals they scored against the University of New Hampshire Friday, or the fact that they were the only top-4 team not to lose this weekend. Previous No. 1 University of Minnesota lost twice, and that certainly helped, and the Terriers being the only regular-season conference champ besides the College of the Holy Cross to win their league’s tournament didn’t hurt, either.
But regardless of reasons, in the final poll of the season, Boston University’s men’s hockey team was anointed the No. 1 team in the country Monday for the first time since Jan. 5, 1998.
“I guess at first we were excited,” co-captain Brad Zancanaro said Monday evening, “but after coach kind of talked to us and told us that there really are no polls anymore — the games determine who’s number one now.”
Either way, the news provides better context for the way David Van der Gulik was acting late Saturday night. He’s been fighting for a Hockey East championship for four years, yet just minutes removed from his MVP performance, he wasn’t exactly savoring it, as even his ultra-ambitious coach, Jack Parker, had suggested.
“We got more work to do,” BU’s co-captain said. “It’s just a stepping stone.”
Apparently so, because the look Van der Gulik was wearing on his face at the time wasn’t one of jubilation or excitement, but of business. And the first thing that was honestly on his mind was Friday’s NCAA Tournament game against the University of Nebraska-Omaha — a match-up that wasn’t even known yet when he was talking.
When you read for the hundredth time about how the top-ranked Terriers are 19-2-2 since Van der Gulik’s miraculous return from a bizarre abdominal injury, remember that it’s that mindset that’s made the difference. Because the one thing this team did in 2005, but hasn’t not done so far in 2006, is appear satisfied.
Obviously, as the No. 1 seed in this weekend’s Worcester regional of the NCAA Tournament, they won’t be satisfied now. And they’ll take with them a pair of parting gifts from Saturday’s Hockey East title.
The first, of course, is the confidence that comes from winning your league and beating your arch-rival. The last time BU won the Hockey East title, in 1997, they went to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee — the same site as this season’s culmination. The No. 1 ranking is just another on the list of things that are happening that hadn’t happened since the Chris Drury era.
But the other benefit from Saturday’s game came in disguise. While Boston College was “beating up” the Terriers in their own end in overtime, as Van der Gulik said, BU might have learned something along the way. Like how to weather a vicious storm in a do-or-die game. And how to keep their composure in such a high-pressure situation.
This team hadn’t won an overtime game this year, and hadn’t trailed or been tied in a game of such importance so late. It wasn’t pretty for stretches in overtime, but the next time the Terriers get in that situation, they’ll know what it’s like.
“This game was the ultimate nerve-racking game, especially in overtime, so I think it helps the younger guys, it helps everybody get comfortable with having it all on the line,” Van der Gulik said. “Coming down the road, it might happen again in Worcester, you never know. To play where the next goal your season could be over … is something that’s gonna help us out on the road.”
And chances are, it will happen sooner rather than later. BU proved Friday that it can score goals in bunches, taking advantage of a team that might not be playing airtight defense. They might get into that type of a contest against No. 15 Nebraska-Omaha in the first round — the Mavericks are fourth in the nation in scoring and 40th in team defense.
But the tight, defensive game the Terriers won against No. 9 BC might be what’s waiting for them if they can get past the Mavs. BU saw how the Eagles tried to beat them, and BC’s first-round opponent, the No. 5 University of Miami (Ohio), relies on its defense even more. The RedHawks have the top-ranked defense in the nation and are one of only two teams who allow less than two goals per game.
The fact that the Terriers have succeeded at both types of games is what makes them the favorites in Worcester — not the “1” that sits next to their name on the bracket or in the national polls. Miami was ranked higher than BU for most of the year, and even held the No. 1 ranking nationally for a brief stretch. Everyone who’s seen a BC-BU game this year knows how easily any of them could have gone the other way.
Last weekend, things finally went the Terriers’ way at the right time. They outgunned UNH on Friday and outgrinded BC on Saturday. If they use the same formula on the same days — or switch them up to play to their opponents’ weaknesses — this weekend, things could very well go their way again.
That would put BU on the way to Milwaukee — and two wins removed from fulfilling a guarantee of a national championship that sophomore Peter MacArthur made last year after BU’s first-round loss to the University of North Dakota. And MacArthur’s still got two years left to make good even if BU comes up short this year.
“I’m making no guarantees,” MacArthur said Saturday. “All I’m gonna say is that we’re gonna play hard.”
But the optimism is running high around Agganis Arena this week, and with good reason. BU has lost one game in its last 21 — a stretch of 18-1-2 hockey. The top-ranked team in the country is deep, well-rounded and has a very good goaltender.
Maybe most importantly, this history-making bunch is seasoned. They’ve been there, but not far enough. And that has made them hungry.
“Hopefully we can continue to make history,” Zancanaro said, “by winning the first national championship since 1995.”