May 6, 2013

From NEHJ: Bulldog mentality

By Andy Merritt

Yale players celebrate their victory over Quinnipiac in the national championship game. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

PITTSBURGH — This wasn’t the Yale team that was supposed to do this.

If any Yale team was supposed to do this, it was the one that earned the No. 1 overall seed two years ago, the one that seemingly couldn’t lose — didn’t, in fact, for a two-month period from Nov. 19 to Jan. 15 — before falling to the eventual national champion, Minnesota-Duluth, in the East Regional final.

This year’s Yale team barely made the tournament at all. The only way Yale could get one of the 16 invitations to keep the year going was with help from a favorable result in another league’s tournament.

And yet two weeks after Yale, the No. 15 overall seed, started the NCAA tournament in the West Regional, the Bulldogs were the biggest surprise in a year full of them.

The team the Bulldogs played in the national title game, Quinnipiac, is almost as unlikely a finalist, albeit only from a historical perspective. The Bobcats, who weren’t even a Division 1 program two decades ago, were one of the best teams throughout the 2012-13 season. If you hopped in the DeLorean, went back in time 10 years and told someone that Quinnipiac would meet Yale in the national title game, they’d have looked at you like, well, like you were from a science fiction movie.

But there was no fiction about how good Quinnipiac was this year. The Bobcats earned the No. 1 ranking in the country for the first time ever, and held it for a month leading up to the playoffs. Their 30 victories and .756 winning percentage both led the nation, as did their 1.67 goals allowed per game, a paltry number more than three-tenths of a goal per game better than most of the rest of the country.

And yet for all the impressive numbers Quinnipiac had, the Bobcats didn’t quite have what it took to overcome Yale.

The two teams locked up on April 13 — 16 years to the day that the Whalers played their last game in Hartford. Since the Whalers packed up and moved to Carolina, Connecticut hasn’t had much of a hockey history. Oh sure, there’s the AHL’s Whale, but that team has been a work in progress at best.

And so it was that Quinnipiac and Yale — two programs separated by less than eight miles of road — wrote the long overdue next chapter in Connecticut hockey history.

The matchup came about a month after the two teams met in a far less important game — especially for Quinnipiac. While the Bobcats romped to the ECAC’s regular-season title, they fell short in the tournament, losing to Brown in the league semifinals. So when Quinnipiac met Yale in the third-place game, nothing could change for the Bobcats. They were already assured the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament — a program first.

For Yale, the game could have meant a great deal more — a win would have helped the Bulldogs’ chances of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid. But Yale didn’t play that way and lost to Quinnipiac, 3-0.

Then Yale got some help. In the CCHA final, Notre Dame played Michigan, and a win by the lower-seeded Wolverines would have put them in the tournament instead of the Bulldogs. Fortunately for Yale, Notre Dame won the league title — the last one in CCHA history.

That meant Yale got the 15th seed with the final at-large spot in the tournament. More importantly, Yale got a fighting chance. But it wasn’t much more of a chance than that. The Bulldogs drew arguably the toughest of the four regionals, grouped with former champions Minnesota and North Dakota as well as a Niagara team that had lost 10 games all year. But the Bulldogs met the challenge, knocking off Minnesota — then the No. 1 team in the country — and North Dakota to win the regional and advance to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. There, the Bulldogs had more upsets on their minds, beating UMass-Lowell in the national semifinals to earn the program’s first-ever berth in the title game.

“I think it’s difficult to beat anyone in college hockey,” said senior captain Andrew Miller, speaking after the championship game. He was answering a question about how hard it was for the Bulldogs to beat three No. 1 seeds in the tournament — Minnesota, Lowell and finally Quinnipiac. But he might as well have been talking about the headaches other teams had with Yale.

“Night in and night out, there is so much parity,” he said. “In the NCAA tournament, anybody can beat anybody, and whoever has the hottest goalie and plays the best team game wins. I think we did that for the last four games.”

Meanwhile, Quinnipiac had an easier road. The Bobcats started their tournament trip against Canisius, the surprise champion of Atlantic Hockey, and while the Golden Griffins put a scare into the No. 1 team in the East Regional, Quinnipiac scored three goals in the third period to win. The next night in Providence, Quinnipiac ran away from ECAC rival Union, scoring three goals over a span of 3:12 in the first period en route to a 5-1 rout.

Jeff Malcolm, who stopped 36 shots in the title game, hoists the championship trophy. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

That set them up with a matchup against St. Cloud State in the semifinals, and the Bobcats continued to roll, winning 4-1 in dominating fashion.

It was hard to remember which team had earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament and which one snuck in the back door when the Bobcats and Bulldogs met on April 13, however. Thirty-nine minutes of hard-fought, scoreless hockey gave way to a goal by Yale’s Clinton Bourbonais, scored when defenseman Gus Young (Dedham, Mass.) alertly fired a slow Quinnipiac clearing attempt from the left-wing halfboards toward the front of the net. There, Bourbonais adroitly tipped the puck behind himself, and it skittered through goaltender Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker finalist whose dream season was about to turn into a nightmare.

Three third-period goals — from rookie Charles Orzetti, Miller and Pittsburgh native Jesse Root — gave Yale just about everything it needed for its first national championship. Everything, that is, except for goaltending. For that, they turned to senior Jeff Malcolm, who much like his team came into the Frozen Four unheralded after an unspectacular, if solid, season. His 2.24 goals-against average was 20th in the nation, and his .914 save percentage was 30th — well behind Hartzell’s 1.57 and .933 numbers, not to mention the best-in-the-nation 1.37 GAA and .952 save percentage of Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck.

But as Miller said, “whoever has the hottest goalie” wins, and April 13 was a night to throw out the stats and the Hobey Baker nominations — Yale had the best goalie in the country. Malcolm stopped all 36 of Quinnipiac’s shots to earn just the fifth shutout ever in a national championship — and on his 24th birthday, to boot.

“Jeff played great all night,” defenseman Colin Dueck said. “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, I mean, 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.”

For Yale coach Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.), the title is the culmination of many things — of a building project that started when he was hired in 2006, of a love affair with Yale that began when he came to the school as a freshman in 1976, and of a season bookended by grief. Allain’s father died in October, and his wife, Mi, had to miss the Frozen Four to attend her father’s funeral in Sweden.

While Allain opted not to speak at length about those losses, it was clear that the NCAA championship was more than just one win.

“I came back to prove that you could go to the best university in the world and compete in hockey at the highest level,” he said. “And this group has proven that so far this year.”

It was a minor slip by a forward-minded coach, the “so far.” There isn’t any hockey left to play. There are no more doubters left to convert. There are no more upsets needed. Yale — yes, Yale — is the best college hockey team in the country.

Imagine that.