March 26, 2011

Yale's Frozen Four hopes dashed with loss to Duluth

by Adam Wodon

Denny Kearney (photo: Jack Warhola)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Eight seconds.

In a span of eight seconds, Yale's Brian O'Neill -- all season the most dynamic offensive player on the Bulldogs -- went from getting his team back in the game to getting kicked out of the game.

It was a cruel twist of fate for a team, and a player, with such monumental aspirations.

The goal cut Minnesota-Duluth's lead to 3-1. The subsequent five-minute major power play increased UMD's lead to 5-1. Yale could not recover.

In the end, the Ivy League school that turned so many doubters into believers -- the one that went from ECAC Hockey also-rans to making the NCAAs in three consecutive seasons -- came up one game short of the Frozen Four once again. A 5-3 final in front of a Yale-friendly crowd was a stinging defeat to end the best season in the program's long history.

"It's not the way we pictured our season ending," Yale senior Denny Kearney (Hanover, N.H.) said.

O'Neill had just finished putting in a one-timer on a power play, his 20th goal of the season. Eight seconds later, pumped up, O'Neill barreled over UMD forward Jake Hendrickson at center ice. The officials called it a contact to the head penalty, an automatic five-minute major and a game misconduct.

No one wanted to admit it at the time, but the game was over right then.

"In hindsight the game was over then," Yale coach Keith Allain admitted afterward. "We don't feel that way in the middle of the game, because we're working our tails off to the final buzzer. But if you look back, I think they definitely got the momentum and took one of our top players out of the game."

Yale, of course, could've handled the earlier parts of the game better, too, and not been in such a precarious position.

The Elis came storming out, much like ECAC brethren Union did to Dulutha night earlier. But like Union, Yale could not cash in on numerous opportunities. Instead, it allowed a shorthanded goal to UMD star forward Mike Connolly.

"I was actually pleased with the way we played the first period even though we were down," Allain said. "I really liked that game and what we were trying to establish. I thought the game got taken away from us a bit in the second period."

Allain was perhaps making a veiled reference to the officiating. But some mistakes didn't help. Goalie Ryan Rondeau, so strong all year, turned in a game that many feared would happen all along. The second goal for Duluth was a soft one and, as it turned out, the only even-strength goal of the game for either team. Another power play led to Duluth's third goal, and it looked bleak for Yale.

But Yale, as it showed in last year's NCAAs and throughout this season, can pour it on with the best of them. And when O'Neill scored his goal, there was a palpable buzz. Until 10 seconds later.

The call was controversial, particularly among Yale partisans.

"I thought we had the momentum and then they gave Brian a five-minute penalty and kicked him out of the game," Allain said. "Look at the tape, tell me what you think."

Yale was demonstrably flustered for a few minutes after that, and that couldn't have come at a worse time. The Elis took another penalty, creating a 5-on-3, and UMD scored an easy goal on that. Then Duluth added another during the remaining major power play, just for good measure.

Allain replaced Rondeau with Nick Maricic for the third period.

"Ryan has been our best player all year long," Allain said. "I didn't think it was going to be his night, and I felt a change would help us."

Of course, the players weren't thinking of packing it in. And Yale scored two power-play goals in the third period to try to make a game of it.

"I don't think we ever felt we were out of it," Yale senior defenseman Jimmy Martin said. "There was no quit in our guys. We battled, and we got a few -- we didn't get as many as we needed.”

Adam Wodon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.