BRIDGEPORT — After a record-setting 24-win season that included its first-ever ECAC tournament championship, the men’s hockey team finally met its match on Friday against No. 11 Vermont.
The third-seeded Catamounts (22-11-5) defeated the second-seeded Bulldogs in a 4-1 upset, the first of two wins this weekend that propelled the team to a surprise berth in the Frozen Four.
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Left winger Chris Cahill ’10 scored late in the game for the No. 5 Bulldogs (24-8-2), while goaltender Alec Richards ’09 made 22 saves in net.
“I’d like to congratulate the University of Vermont,” Yale head coach Keith Allain said after the game. “I think the game probably went exactly according to the script they had written up. We just weren’t able to get on track, but having said that, I’m very proud of my team, the way they competed up until the end and the way they’ve competed all year long.”
After an evenly matched start to the game, Vermont forward Peter Lenes opened the scoring 14 minutes and 28 seconds into the contest. Lenes carried the puck up from his defensive zone and beat Yale goaltender Richards — who appeared to have been screened by his own defenseman — with a low far-post wrister for his 15th goal of the season.
Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist Viktor Stalberg doubled his team’s lead less than two minutes into the second period on an opportunistic wrist shot. The junior forward carried the puck up into the offensive zone and attempted a pass through right defenseman Jimmy Martin’s ’11 legs, but the puck took a slight deflection off Martin’s skate. Once again in possession of the puck, Stalberg quickly snapped a wrister past Richards into the right side of the net.
The Catamounts only picked up their play following the goal, keeping the Elis on their heels with hard crosschecks, crisp passing and a constant barrage of shots on net.
After an 8-7 advantage in shots during the opening frame, Vermont took control of the game early in the second and had mustered a 14-8 advantage midway through the second period.
Yale picked things up during the latter half of the period and came close to getting right back into the game around the 15-minute mark. Right winger Sean Backman ’10 and center Brian O’Neill ’12 combined in quick succession, with O’Neill finding left winger Denny Kearney ’11 open on the weak side for a one-timer. But Vermont’s freshman goaltender Rob Madore shifted quickly to deny Kearney and preserve the Catamounts’ shutout.
Vermont successfully outlasted about a minute of 3-on-5 hockey that began soon after Kearney’s effort and soon increased its lead in a quick turn of events. Junior forward Colin Vock dealt a crushing blow to Yale’s comeback effort with an even-strength goal with less than a minute remaining in the period, and the Bulldogs were simply unable to get their offense on track during the third period.
The teams traded goals late in the final frame, but by that time the outcome of the contest had already been decided.
The Catamounts are one of the first teams this season to match Yale’s speed and skill on offense, while still playing a tough, physical style of hockey.
Yale also struggled to execute its notoriously aggressive forecheck, which has allowed the Elis to keep the puck in its offensive zone and outshoot the majority of its opponents this season.
“We showed spurts where we were able to establish our forecheck how we usually do, but we were never able to sustain it for a long period of time,” captain and right winger Matt Nelson ’09 said. “That’s the way we wear teams down, which is the key to our success.”
“I just don’t think we were on our rhythm tonight,” Nelson added.
Yet it wasn’t for a lack of chances.
The Bulldogs had as many shots on target, 26, as their opponents, but the team was simply unable to capitalize on the offensive opportunities that arose.
The Bulldogs also ran into a Catamount team that was looking to avenge a disappointing Hockey East quarterfinal series loss to No. 16 UMass-Lowell.
Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon called Friday’s game “as complete of an effort as we’ve had all year,” as he put it.
“I told our guys in the locker room that that was probably our best game of the year — defensive intensity, the puck battles that we won, and our back pressure,” he said. “We closed gaps on both sides of the puck tonight that made it difficult for Yale to create offense, and that’s their game.”
The Catamounts’ success continued on Saturday when they faced No. 18 Air Force, which the day before upset top-seeded Michigan in a 2-o win to advance to the East Regional finals. In that contest, Vermont defeated the fourth-seeded Falcons 3-2 in double overtime to punch its ticket to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of the disappointing loss, Yale’s players and coaches were able to put things into perspective after the game.
“There are a lot of things to remember about this season, a lot of individual moments,” Nelson said. “This tournament was a really special memory. The main thing I’m going to remember is how close our team got and the times we’ve had away from the ice. No one can see that but players and coaches, but that’s been the most special thing for me, and something I’ll remember forever.”