Fueled by a two-goal, characteristic performance from Lane Hutson, the Boston University men’s hockey team (27-10-0, 19-6-0 Hockey East) clinched the 2023 Hockey East Championship title in a 3-2 overtime win against the Merrimack College Warriors (23-13-1, 16-9-0 HE).
Drew Commesso strung together two career-defining showings, with 40 stops tonight. BU doesn’t hoist the trophy without him this weekend.
“I’m at a loss for words, a little bit. I will say I’m really proud of our group. These guys have been so resilient all year long, it’s made my job really easy,” head coach Jay Pandolfo said postgame. “I know we’re not done yet, but to get this first one that I know we really wanted to win this year, we’ve accomplished that and now we move on.”
This was a gutty win from BU, missing a handful of their most impactful players. Pandolfo had to rework his lineup in the absence of seniors Case McCarthy and Wilmer Skoog. McCarthy suffered a broken collarbone from last night’s scary collision in the corner boards. Skoog was suspended one game after his boarding call against Providence was reviewed this morning –– we can delve into that in another article.
McCarthy was in the building tonight, somewhat miraculous considering the scene 24 hours prior.
“Case McCarthy getting hurt last night, to have him back here was huge. He announced the starting lineup for our team tonight –– I think that was important for our guys to see that he’s okay,” Pandolfo said.
Ethan Phillips moved up to the first line on the right wing, while Jay O’Brien slid back over to center with Matt Brown on his other side. Sophomore Brian Carrabes was the extra forward and freshman Lachlan Getz got his first ice time since Feb. 3 as the sixth defenseman.
While BU trailed 1-0 at the end of one, its opening 20 minutes were much stronger than yesterday’s. The Terriers were aggressive on the forecheck, sustained o-zone time and fired ten shots-on-goal –– just five shy from their total in regulation against Providence. The 50/50 puck battles could’ve been better, and were a point of emphasis Pandolfo mentioned, but the high-quality chances were there.
Merrimack opened the scoring while on the penalty kill after Dylan Peterson sent the puck around the boards towards BU’s defensive end –– and for lack of a better term –– a strange thing to do on the man-advantage. Other than that slip up, Peterson was leading the charge all night as one of BU’s better forwards.
The Warriors picked up the puck by the blue line and got to the races. Senior winger Ben Brar sauced it to Christian Felton who tipped it in while rushing the net. The junior defenseman made it 1-0 at 6:57 and drew a hooking penalty on Jeremy Wilmer in the same breath, but BU then killed it off.
Captain Domenick Fensore was hit hard in the corner on the transition, was slow to get up and headed to the locker room for a few minutes before making it back to the bench to finish the period. Fensore, even while playing hurt, was one of the most effective guys on the ice. His leadership not only tonight, but the entire season, was a big component to the title victory.
Fensore’s team was handed a five-on-three power play with less than 30 seconds remaining in the frame as Mike Brown and Brar sat in the box –– accounting for Merrimack’s third and fourth penalties of the first.
With 1:21 left on the two-man-advantage going into the second stanza, the Terriers had no excuse not to capitalize. OB hit the crossbar in their first power play of the night, and it was time the special teams stepped up. And that it did, thanks to none other than HE Rookie of the Year, Lane Hutson.
“We just wanted to make sure we took the right shot,” Pandolfo said. “Lane decided on that one –– he liked the look –– and as usual, he finished it off.”
Stationed by the right faceoff circle, L. Hutson received a no-look pass from Fensore and blasted it past sophomore goaltender Hugo Ollas to knot it 1-1, 38 seconds into the period. The defenseman’s 13th of the year gave BU a jolt of energy as junior forward Luke Tuch rang one off the pipe less than a minute later.
“It’s been a really good freshman year,” L. Hutson said postgame –– perhaps the understatement of the century. “We have great guys in our locker room. They really took me in and kind of let me do my thing.”
An already shorthanded Terrier group lost another at around 12:00 when Nick Zabaneh went awkwardly into the boards, slamming his right knee, while laying a hit on a Warrior. The junior forward was helped down the tunnel and didn’t return for the rest of the contest.
“Losing Nick Zabaneh, middle of the game, we had to go down to three centers. We just had guys step up all year long,” Pandolfo said.
After some four-on-four hockey, Merrimack regained the lead at even strength. Tristan Crozier won the faceoff and tapped it back to the tape of senior forward Mac Welsher who snapped it home from the slot, making it 2-1 at 15:09. The Warriors picked up some momentum thereafter, with three dangerous looks thanks to solid netfront presence.
The Terriers nearly found the equalizer in the last minute of the middle frame with a flurry of shots, including one from senior forward Sam Stevens who was stoned by Ollas. The desperation was no doubt rising from BU and that carried into the final 20 of regulation –– the biggest period of the season.
Zone entries proved a bit tough for the scarlet and white in the first half of the third. Blind passes in the neutral zone disjointed BU’s previous offensive flow and forced Commesso to come up with a few more highlight-reel saves. The junior netminder was once again a saving grace for the Terriers when they left holes in their play.
Freshman forward Devin Kaplan got BU back into the game at 9:02, sniping one top-shelf, left side. On the heels of Merrimack nearly doubling their advantage the shift before, the Terrier fourth line got to work –– as they’ve done all year long –– and knotted things at two apiece. Kaplan was the third freshman with a goal this weekend, showcasing the depth BU has been able to lean on.
“From day one, our freshmen have contributed to our team,” Pandolfo said. “They’ve gotten better as the season has gone on and been a huge part of what we’ve done this year.”
The score would stay locked until the clock struck zero, and the matchup headed to overtime. Both squads played extra hockey the night before –– Merrimack with double OT against UMass Lowell. Fatigue didn’t show for the Terriers, however, and you kind of got the feeling that this one was going to Comm Ave.
“We’ve got a really resilient group and our leaders were saying ‘we’ve got this,’” L. Hutson said. “We knew that we were going to find a way.”
With his fifth game-winning goal of the season, L. Hutson did just that. This guy just shines under pressure and was born for big moments. Dramatic, I know, but true. The tournament MVP carried the puck to the middle of the blueline and lofted it down the center with Brown screening in front, 1:57 into overtime. And what other way is there to celebrate a championship-clinching goal than with a dab?
“I told a few guys in the locker room that if I score I might pull out a dab here, I thought it’d be pretty funny,” L. Hutson said. “I saw someone do it the other night so I thought maybe I could pull it off.”
The Terriers flew off the bench –– a few screams were let out from the press box –– and all the grinding work of turning the BU program around this year was officially rewarded. For the first time since 2018, the Boston University Terriers were named the Hockey East champions. What a game. What a weekend.
Shorthanded, BU proved that good teams find a way to get it done. One of their biggest character wins of the year couldn’t have come at a better time.
The work’s not done though, and the group knows that. The NCAA Tournament selection will be tomorrow around 6:30pm and the Terriers will embark on their next hunt for a trophy. The Boston Hockey Blog will have full coverage so be sure to follow along on Twitter @BOShockeyblog and Instagram @boston.hockey.blog.