PITTSBURGH – The Yale Bulldogs entered the NCAA Division 1 men’s ice hockey tournament as the No. 15 seed. They were the last at-large team to make the tournament at all, securing their spot only when Michigan lost its conference title game.
And, as a No. 15 seed, they would have a tough road to climb – first facing No. 2 Minnesota, then No. 8 North Dakota and, finally, No. 3 UMass Lowell – on the road to the National Championship Game against, naturally, No. 1 Quinnipiac, the best team in college hockey all year.
“I think one of the special things about our team, and one of the qualities of all champions, is a great ability to focus,” said Yale coach Keith Allain. “If we look down the road and say we’re going to have to beat three No. 1’s and a No. 2 seed, the task might have seemed daunting. But when you chip away at it, one at a time – it took a great deal of effort, but it’s not impossible.”
Saturday night, the Bulldogs completed their unlikely rise from underdogs to top dogs, beating the Quinnipiac Bobcats, 4-0, to win a national championship for the first time in the 117-year history of the nation’s oldest college hockey program.
“We have some great players on our team, and a lot of the guys that don’t get noticed, they’re our heroes,” said Yale captain Andrew Miller. “We don’t focus on one player or one group of players. We compete every single night, and I think that’s a testament to our team. We work hard in practice, we work hard off the ice, and I think that’s why we won the national championship.”
Fittingly, it was a few of those unlikely heroes who helped lead Yale to the title. Saturday’s contest against the Bobcats marked the fourth time the crosstown rivals had met this season, with Quinnipiac winning all three times so far. And, for nearly two periods, the teams were deadlocked with no score in the kind of battle you might expect from opponents that know each other’s tendencies so well.
“We had a ton of grade-A [chances] in the first two periods, and we just couldn’t finish,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “Sometimes, the puck just won’t go in the net for you.”
Then, with 3.5 seconds remaining in the second period, the Bulldogs got a lucky bounce when junior forward Clinton Bourbonais, owner of just three goals on the season so far, took a shot from the half-wall that deflected in through the legs of Quinnipiac netminder Eric Hartzell.
“It was just a fluky goal,” Hartzell said. “That’s what happens when you get pucks to the net; weird bounces happen. I didn’t really see the shot. It was deflected and it was bouncing and they redirected it right through my five-hole.”
“The first goal in any game is huge and to get it that way, late in a period, can be even bigger,” said Yale junior forward Jesse Root, a Pittsburgh native. “To put a goal in and then not give them a chance to respond, it can really weigh on a team in a locker room.”
The Bobcats tried to avoid feeling deflated after the late goal – “You’re down by one, and that’s nothing in hockey,” said Quinnipiac captain Zack Currie. “We came on in the third pretty excited; we had every intention of coming back in that game.” But then another unlikely hero, forward Charles Orzetti, found the net for Yale just 3:35 into the third for just his second goal of the season.
Miller added a third midway through the period. Down 3-0, with more than seven minutes remaining and the teams playing four-on-four, the Bobcats tried pulling their goalie to use their power-play configuration. But the desperation move only resulted in Root getting an empty-net goal in front of his hometown crowd. And, back in New Haven, Connecticut, the party was all but on.
“This is what you dream about as a young player,” Root said. “To get a goal in the biggest game of my life in this arena and in this town, it just leaves me speechless.”
And Yale goaltender Jeff Malcolm shut down everything Quinnipiac threw at the net – 36 shots in all – to earn a shutout on his 24th birthday, besting Hobey Baker Award finalist Hartzell.
“Malcolm was great tonight; you’ve got to give the kid credit,” Pecknold said. “It’s the biggest game of his career and he pitches a shutout. We definitely had a lot of chances in the first two periods; the game got away from us there. We could’ve easily been up 1-0 or 2-0 going into the third, and it’s a different hockey game.”
“Jeff played great all night,” said Yale senior defenseman Colin Dueck. “You could tell right from the start he was feeling it. He was getting shots and he was seeing them and moving well. In the second period, he made a pretty good short-breakaway stop and I knew, at that point, he’s just closing the door. Playing in front of him, that’s huge for us because we’re confident. We’re just trying to get in the shot lanes; we’re playing the guy and not worrying about if shots do get by, because he’s going to be there.”
“He’s been our rock all season,” said Yale junior forward Kenny Agostino, a former Pittsburgh Penguins and now Calgary Flames prospect. “Our team has had its ebbs and flows all year but, no question, he has been consistent.”
Coach Allain has also brought consistency, said his players, who credited the 1980 Yale graduate and former Bulldogs goaltender with giving his team the confidence to believe it could rise to the top.
“This program has a lot of great history, but I think you can clearly see that Coach Allain has really changed the whole atmosphere and the whole view of this program,” Agostino said. “He’s one of the best hockey coaches there is. He took this group from the beginning, he had a goal, and we all bought into it. We grew as a team and got even closer at the year went on. We peaked tonight.”
“I came back to prove that you could go to the best university in the world and compete in hockey at the highest level,” Allain said. “And this group has proven that this year.”