PRINCETON, N.J. — In just one weekend, the ECAC regular season championship went back up for grabs.
After a 3-3 overtime tie at Quinnipiac on Friday, the No. 7 Bulldogs (19-6-2, 14-4-2 ECAC) fell, 2-0, on the road to No. 10 Princeton on Saturday in a close contest that pitted the two top teams in the conference against one another.
A victory against the Tigers (20-7-0, 14-6-0) would have clinched the Cleary Cup for Yale by giving it an insurmountable lead atop the ECAC standings heading into the last weekend of the regular season. But with the win, defending regular season champion Princeton is now only two points behind the Elis with two games left in the regular season.
Despite the tie against Quinnipiac, the Bulldogs came into Saturday’s contest at Hobey Baker Rink here in Princeton with an opportunity to clinch the regular season championship against the Tigers in the home building of last year’s champions.
But it was the Tigers who ultimately prevailed in a game that wasn’t decided until late in the third period.
Princeton defenseman Jody Pederson scored a power-play goal on a slap shot from the point just over five minutes into the third period for the game-winner, and forward Kevin Kaiser added an empty-net insurance goal with less than a minute left to seal the deal for the home team.
Alec Richards ’09 stopped 33 of 34 shots in a heavyweight duel with Princeton goaltender Zane Kalemba, who stopped all 31 shots he faced.
From the first face-off, it was obvious that the two top teams in the ECAC were facing off in a game that had title implications.
“I thought it was a quality hockey game between two very good teams,” Yale head coach Keith Allain said. “I’m very pleased with the way we played. Obviously, we have to finish on some of those chances, but I thought it was a hell of a game.”
Both teams came out strong early in the game, as players raced up and down the ice amassing quality scoring chances on each team’s goaltenders.
At the end of the first frame, Princeton and Yale had each mustered 10 shots on goal, but the away squad had the better looks at goal. Kalemba stopped everything he faced with confidence, but gave up numerous rebounds that Bulldog players just couldn’t get their sticks on.
The home team responded with an impressive second period and surely could have scored a couple of goals had it not been for a great play from Richards, who stopped 12 shots in the frame. At around the 11-minute mark, the Tigers saw a myriad of quality scoring chances, but the senior goaltender was up to the challenge. His best save came when Princeton center Lee Jubinville attempted to jam the puck in from behind the left side of the net. But Richards deftly shifted over to cover the open side of the net, blocking the puck only inches from the goal line.
Pedersen’s game-winning goal came on the only power-play of the third period.
The Bulldogs pressed in search of the equalizer, but were ultimately unable to get many quality looks on net before Kaiser’s insurance goal.
BATTLE OF THE GOALTENDERS
Center Mark Arcobello ’10 led the Bulldogs on Friday night with two goals, while right winger and captain Matt Nelson ’09 opened the scoring for Yale at 6:57 at the TD Banknorth Sports Center in neighboring Hamden.
Richards made 29 saves against the Bobcats (15-14-3, 8-9-3), but partly due to the soft goal he conceded late in the third, his effort was overshadowed by stellar play from Quinnipiac replacement netminder Bud Fisher.
After Arcobello hit the net to give the away squad a 2-0 lead midway through the first period, it looked like the Elis were on their way to dominate the Bobcats for their ninth straight victory. But Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold’s decision to pull freshman starting goalie Dan Clarke for veteran Bud Fisher worked to perfection, as the senior netminder came up big late in the game to conserve a hard-fought point for the Bobcats.
“It’s a bit of a tricky situation but when you’re dressing for a game,” Fisher said about coming in off the bench. “You’ve got to be ready for anything. Stuff like that happens, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
With the Bulldogs leading 3-2 in the third, Fisher denied Yale on numerous quality scoring chances, enabling Greg Holt to tie the contest for the Bobcats with less than five minutes remaining in the period.
“We had numerous opportunities in the third period to put the game away and we didn’t,” Allain said. “They’re going to make their push, that’s what our league is about. I just thought that we had some opportunities to have that not be a factor, we just weren’t as solid as we should have been.”
The Elis came out strong in the five-minute overtime period, but Fisher was once again up to test. On his best effort, he thwarted a wrist-shot from left winger Denny Kearney ’11 with a reflex glove save about a minute into the extra frame.
“It’s hard to pull a goalie that early in a game, but I just thought that Clarke was fighting it,” Pecknold, the Quinnipiac head coach, said. “Even before he gave up a goal I thought he was nervous.”
“[Fisher] played well,” he added. “He made some big saves, and we needed that.”
THE FINAL STRETCH
The Elis welcome No. 11 Cornell and Colgate to Ingalls Rink this weekend for the final two conference matchups of the regular season. The Big Red sit in third place in the ECAC standings, and, at only three points behind Yale, are still in the hunt for the championship.
The Big Red face ECAC bottom-feeders Brown on Saturday, while Princeton faces Dartmouth and Harvard over the weekend. Regardless of Princeton’s and Cornell’s results, if the Elis accumulate three points, the Cleary Cup will be theirs. When all is said and done, Yale’s destiny still rests in its own hands.