BOSTON — Providence had waited three decades for this moment. Actually, check that. Forever.
Not one player on this year’s team was even born the last and only time the Friars played for a DI national championship in men‘s ice hockey in 1985. That year, they lost by a single goal.
So when it finally happened Saturday night at TD Garden, when one last sprawling save by goaltender Jon Gillies had finished off Hockey East champion Boston University, when the noise in the building had reached a deafening roar as the game-ending horn sounded, Gillies’ teammates rushed to him so quickly that they bowled him over the net and into the end boards, ripping the net from its posts.
Gillies disappeared beneath a sea of happy, hollering teammates.
“I didn’t hear the horn,” Gillies said. “I was looking for the puck because it wasn’t out of the zone. I just wanted to make it sure it didn’t … it didn’t go in. I didn’t even have time to get my helmet off before everyone was on top of me. There was an unbelievable feeling.”
“He’s probably a little sore right now,” said junior forward Kevin Rooney, whose uncle, Steve Rooney, played on that 1985 Providence team. “It’s all right. He’ll get over it.”
Gillies, a Calgary Flames pick in the 2012 National Hockey League amateur draft, decided before the 2014-15 season to delay turning pro so that he could play this season at Providence. Saturday, he made a career-high 49 saves and was named the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player as he led the Friars (26-13-2), a No. 4 seed in its own regional, to their historic 4-3 win against Boston University.
Gillies hugged senior team captain Ross Mauermann, who played in a school-record 156 consecutive games.
Rooney skated up to Gillies and gave him a bear hug. He had one message: “Thanks for coming back.”
Minutes after that, once the Friars had lifted up the NCAA championship trophy and held it above their heads for their applauding fans at TD Garden to enjoy and they had cut apart the net for souvenirs, sounds of the song, “We are the champions,” echoed from the team locker room and down the hallway.
“Tough one to swallow, without question,” BU coach David Quinn said. “But we’ll be back.“
None of this would have happened without a sprawling save by Gillies in front of the net with 1:01 remaining. The play was so incredible that Gillies himself thought the puck was in the net. When he discovered it wasn’t, he dove and a shot by BU’s Cason Hohmann bounced off Gillies’ chest while he was down on the ice.
“I initially thought it went in,” Gillies said. “I didn’t feel anything and no one reacted. Then I saw the puck over there [near the corner of the goal crease] and I was like, ‘Time to dive.’ That’s when being 6-[foot]-6 helps out a little bit.”
Hohmann, who scored a goal in the second period that had put BU up 3-2, dropped to the ice and held his head in disappointment.
“That was pretty crazy,” Mauermann said. “I don’t know. Just happy he got it done.”
“Oh, my God, he does that,” Rooney said of Gillies’ save. “It surprised all the people, but for us, oh, he does that all the time. A little more special, a bigger moment.”
In the two Frozen Four games, Gillies made 74 saves, but none bigger in those final two minutes when BU — led by Hobie Baker winner Jack Eichel — swarmed in for what the Terriers hoped would be an overtime-forcing goal.
Gillies was 24-13-2 for the entire season and piled up 1,029 saves. He was named a second-team All-American on Friday.
“He was big time for us,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “He held the ship. I think it’s very similar to our season. He held us in there.”
But amid Providence’s celebration, there was a play that happened at the other end of the ice that caused pause for Gillies. And it happened to be the one play which gave the Friars a lift to overcome a one-goal BU lead. Providence tied the game at 3-3 with 8:36 left in the game when BU goalie Matt O’Connor misplayed a long clearing shot by Providence’s Tom Parisi. O’Connor caught the puck, held it in his glove, then dropped it. The puck hit his pad and trickled into the net behind him.
Less than three minutes later, Brandon Tanev scored the game-deciding goal.
“You feel for Matt,” Gillies said. “We’ve all had one of those and you feel for him.”
The loss finished off a season for BU (28-8-5) in which the Terriers had the biggest turnaround season in school history and the NCAA this season. They lost 21 games a year ago.
Quinn was attempting to be the first coach in 52 years to win the national championship in his first year as a head coach in the NCAA Tournament. The last to do it was Barry Thorndycraft in 1963 with North Dakota.
Instead, Gillies held Eichel scoreless and gave up just three goals to the nation’s highest-scoring team this season. The final minute was the most intense.
“When I heard the buzzer ring, I couldn’t breathe,” Rooney said. “I felt like I was out there for three minutes. I was only out there for 20 seconds.”