Pandolfo guides Boston University hockey to national semifinals

Jay Pandolfo still looks like he could lace ‘em up and skate a few shifts.

A former four-year standout at Boston University and a veteran of 899 NHL games who scored exactly 100 goals in a career that spanned 15 professional seasons, Pandolfo became the BU men’s hockey program’s 13th head coach in May of 2022.

The impact?

Seventeen upperclassmen, 10 of them seniors, came back to the team.

The journey ended on Thursday in Tampa, Florida with a 6-2 loss in the national semifinals to top-seeded Minnesota, 6-2.

The game was tied 2-2 early in the third period before the Golden Gophers pulled away, adding two empty-net goals in the final moments.

“These guys to the left of me and the rest of the seniors are a huge reason why we got back to this point,” said Pandolfo, 48, while sitting next to seniors Jay O’Brien and Domenick Fensore during a press conference after the game. “I’m so proud of them. It’s been a pleasure working with them every day, the way they got this program back to doing things the right way, showing up every day and competing. At the end of the year it was a player-led team and that’s what we wanted.”

Most of the talk after the game was about how the Terriers were, as Pandolfo stated, back.

After all, Thursday’s loss was BU’s first trip to the Frozen Four since then-coach David Quinn led the Terriers to the national championship game during the 2014-2015 season.

The 29 wins piled up by the Terriers is the most by the program since Jack Parker’s 2008-2009 squad won 36 games and lost in the NCAA title game.

The success, according to Pandolfo, went way beyond goals and assists.

“From the start of the season, the way our guys showed up every day to the rink and were buying in to the way we wanted them to act away from the rink, at the rink, on the ice, off the ice – all these little things I saw right away,” said Pandolfo, who won a national championship as a player for BU in the 1990s. “I’ve talked about senior leadership a lot this year and I saw it from them right away. I knew they were going to help the guys coming in.”

Minnesota coach Bob Motzko admits that not many first-year coaches enjoy the ride that the Terriers did with Pandolfo.

“What a year that Jay has had,” Motzko said. “Everything that we read about him and we talked to a lot of people about him and everyone has a ton of respect for him. He’s a class act. He played for (Minnesota assistant coach) Paul Martin and Paul just said he’s a terrific person. Obviously, BU is in pretty good hands with Jay.”

Both Quinn and Albie O’Connell, the two coaches that led BU for five and four years, respectively, after Parker retired, had losing records during their first year on the bench.

Pandolfo, who was the associate head coach with O’Connell last season as BU went 19-13-3, was 29-11 this year and the players are quick to point out that his leadership was a major reason why.

“It’s been unbelievable,” said Fensore. “The way we bought in this year was really fun to see. This program has a bright future ahead.”

Fensore said the way the younger players responded was critical.

“Everything matters, that was our motto this year,” he said. “Give credit to them. They put their egos aside and wanted to be a part of success and that’s what playing for BU means. It was really cool to see.”

Pandolfo won two Stanley Cups as a member of the New Jersey Devils.

In 1999-2000, he played in 71 regular-season games and finished with seven goals and eight assists. He played in all 23 of the playoff games.

In 2002-2003, he had six goals and 11 assists in 68 games, but was a +12 that ranked 10th-best on the team. Again, he appeared in every playoff game.

Yes, Pandolfo speaks from experience when telling younger players that everything matters.

He spoke about his team’s fourth line after Thursday’s game.

“The forward depth on our team was very strong,” he said. “Those guys bought in to playing a certain way and they relished the role they had. That’s what you need on winning teams. You have guys buy in to playing certain roles, not everyone can be on the first line, not everyone can be on the power play. You need those type of players and I give those guys a lot of credit, they did a heck of a job. We probably don’t get to this point without the way that line played at certain points this year.”

Fensore and O’Brien both praised Pandolfo’s job this season.

“He’s been amazing,” Fensore said. “He comes to work every day and pushes us. He’s so dedicated to this program. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, he treats you the same way and that’s exactly what you want from a head coach. He knows the game so well. He taught me so much over the last two years here at BU. I’m going to miss him so much. He’s the right guy at the helm to lead this team into the future.”

“We were very lucky and fortunate to have Pando lead us,” said O’Brien, fighting back tears. “Coming here, he kind of changed the way things were going for BU. I think everybody knows that. He cares so much about his players, staff and everyone around BU. He holds us to a high standard and holds everyone accountable. He’s going to be coaching BU for as long as he wants, hopefully that’s a long time.”