Anthony Moccia tried. He tried saying something when there was so little to be said. He tried picking up his best friend after watching him commit one of the costliest blunders in the history of college hockey.
With 8:34 left in Saturday’s national championship game, Boston University goalie Matt O’Connor gloved a seemingly harmless dump-in from the neutral zone. But then he bobbled the puck, lost track of it in his pads and wound up knocking it into his own net to tie the game for Providence. Two minutes later, the Friars took the lead.
During the next TV timeout, O’Connor slowly made his way to the BU bench. It was there that Moccia, O’Connor’s roommate at BU, grabbed the downtrodden goalie and spoke from his heart.
“I just said, ‘I’m so proud of you,'” Moccia said. “‘You’re my best friend. I love you, bud. We’re gonna pick you up. Just keep kicking. Hang tough because you’re the one who took us here.'”
The Terriers couldn’t pick O’Connor up, though. They had done it numerous times throughout the season, just as O’Connor had picked them up many times. But it didn’t happen Saturday. Jon Gillies was too good at the other end of the ice. The Terriers had chances over the game’s final six minutes, but they couldn’t find the tying tally.
After the game, Moccia put his arm around O’Connor again. He knew it was just about impossible to say anything that would actually make O’Connor feel any better in that moment, but he had to try. He couldn’t bear to see his best friend feeling the way O’Connor felt.
“I’m so proud of this guy,” Moccia said. “The character he showed the whole year, he’s the reason that we’re here. He’s made my last year unforgettable. I love the guy. I hate to see him upset like that. You hate to see your best friend, your brother upset. Honestly, that’s what hurts the most. It’s not even the loss. It’s just seeing the guys and seeing Matt so upset.”
It was a sentiment echoed throughout the BU locker room after the game. There was obviously disappointment. Disappointment that they had come this far and had won every other trophy they had played for this season, but couldn’t win this one. Disappointment that they had the lead in the national championship game with under nine minutes to go, but couldn’t close it out.
But they weren’t disappointed in O’Connor. They refused to be. No one was about to throw their goalie under the bus.
“He’s really been the backbone to our team all year,” Matt Grzelcyk said. “I think every guy in the room would agree we wouldn’t be in the championship game without him.”
“He stood on his head for us all season long,” Evan Rodrigues said. “You can’t fault him at all. [Stuff] like this happens.”
“He’s the reason we’re here,” Jack Eichel said. “We wouldn’t have even made it close to where we are if we didn’t have OC. It’s a tough bounce. That’s the game of hockey.”
It’s hard to reconcile O’Connor’s mistake Saturday night with his overall body of work this season. It needs to be pointed out that this wasn’t even the first bad mistake O’Connor had made in the NCAA tournament. In fact, it was the third in three games.
In the regional final against Minnesota-Duluth, he had a soft wrister from above the faceoff circle bounce off his glove and in. In Thursday’s national semifinal against North Dakota, he misplayed a puck behind the net and kicked it right to a North Dakota player for an easy tap-in goal.
But BU still won those games, and O’Connor redeemed himself with some big saves following both of those mistakes. BU didn’t win Saturday, though, and O’Connor didn’t get a chance to redeem himself. There was virtually nothing he could’ve done on Providence’s fourth goal, and he didn’t really get tested much after that as most of the final six minutes was played in the Providence end as BU pressed for the tying goal.
Despite these unexplainable mistakes — and here it should be noted that O’Connor did talk to the media after the game and tried to explain Saturday’s gaffe — O’Connor is a good goalie. You don’t post a .927 save percentage without being good. You don’t draw interest from a dozen NHL teams without being good.
Perhaps there will be a time to take a closer look at these mistakes and whether they’re symptomatic of a bigger problem with O’Connor or if they really are just freak mistakes. Saturday night wasn’t that time, though. Saturday night was for empathy. Saturday night was for feeling awful for a kid who is highly regarded by everyone who knows him and who happened to make a mistake that will live in infamy.
“You have college sports for people like Matt O’Connor,” said BU coach David Quinn. “Great athlete, great student. Everybody here, if you spend 10 minutes with him, he acts like he’s 35 years old. He’s exactly what you want in a student-athlete.”