The men’s hockey team got some good news and some bad news Sunday morning.
The good news was that despite an early exit in the ECAC Tournament, the No. 9 Bulldogs were selected to make the NCAA Tournament as a three seed in the Northeast regional and will play close by in Worcester, Mass.
The bad news is that they have to play No. 5 North Dakota, arguably the toughest two seed in the tournament.
Gathered inside Ingalls Rink at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, the Bulldogs (20–9–3, 15–5–2) watched the NCAA Hockey Selection Show on ESPN2, where the Elis found out that they would be facing the Fighting Sioux on Saturday evening at the DCU Center in Worcester. The winner will take on the winner of Saturday afternoon’s game between first-seeded Boston College and fourth-seeded Alaska.
“We’re excited,” left winger Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “It’s a great opportunity to play a big powerhouse that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a chance to play because they are out west.”
Although favored to win the ECAC Tournament and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament like last year, the men’s hockey team had a premature exit. The Elis were eliminated in the quarterfinals on home ice on March 14 after losing a best-of-three series to Brown, 2–1.
Possibly hampered by the loss of star forward Sean Backman ’10, who is out for the rest of the season with a foot injury, Yale’s trademark explosive offense never fully found its stride.
Backman, his teammates and his coaches have been quiet about specifics, but the Athletics Department said in a statement that Backman was injured at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium after regular hours on Feb. 27. The department is reviewing the incident, but no disciplinary action is expected — and neither is Backman’s return to the ice this season.
Without him, the Bulldogs, following a first-round bye, came out flat at Ingalls Rink against the Bears on March 12.
Down 2–0 in the third period of game one, Yale got on the scoreboard off a power play goal from defenseman Tom Dignard ’10 at 5:01.
One minute later, though, the Bears responded with a score off of an odd-man rush that ultimately sealed the deal.
“It came down to them outworking us the whole game,” Dignard said. “They got the bounces, and that’s what happens a team outworks you in playoffs.”
On the next day, the Elis leaped out to a 1–0 lead in the game’s first minute and never looked back.
Continuing to dominate possession and flow, the Bulldogs took a commanding 4–0 lead midway through the second period after Andrew Miller ’13 found Brian O’Neill ’12 for an easy backdoor goal.
The game ended at 6–3 after the Elis scored two more and Brown scored three in the final period.
But the Bulldogs couldn’t get it done in game three. A 1–0 loss to Brown on Sunday night eliminated the Bulldogs from the ECAC Tournament. In the contest Clemente delivered the performance of his career, as he shut down the Bulldogs’ offense, recording 44 saves, including 19 in the Yale-dominated third period.
Overall, the Bulldogs outshot the Bears 44–21 but trailed in the category that counts — goals.
“It was a night where their goalie stole the game. It’s as frustrating as it can get in a team sport when one guy is the difference in the game,” Yale head coach Keith Allain ’80 said.
After a week of waiting to see if their season was still alive, the Bulldogs had to wait until the very end of Sunday’s ESPN2 broadcast before the Northeast region — the final part of the bracket to be announced — was shown on the TV screen. By that time, though, the team already knew that it was all but guaranteed a spot after this past weekend’s results.
Coming off of its series loss to Brown last week, the team practiced all week under the assumption that they would make the tournament.
Still, right winger Broc Little ’11 said that the team was uncertain about their chances, at least until results later in the week went in Yale’s favor.
“We were definitely a little on edge,” he said. “At the beginning of the week we were kind of down, but now we’ve got new life and we don’t want to let that opportunity pass us by.”
Although they are happy to have made it, O’Neill said they have high expectations this postseason. Yale was a second-seed last year but was eliminated in the first round after a 4–1 loss to Vermont.
“We want to get a win and not just make an appearance,” O’Neill said.
In order to make a run, though, the Elis face a tough test ahead of them in North Dakota.
Although North Dakota (25–12–5, 15–10–3) finished tied for fourth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association during the regular season, the Fighting Sioux won the WCHA tournament and are 12–1–0 over the past 13 games. In the conference tournament, North Dakota swept past No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 1 Denver before besting No. 6 St. Cloud State in the finals, 5–3.
The Fighting Sioux rank 13th in scoring and fourth in scoring defense nationally. Seventeen players on the team have been drafted by the NHL; no current Elis have been selected.
Sophomore goaltender Brad Eidsness is eighth in the country with a 2.09 goals-against-average.
In evaluating the Northeast Regional on television, ESPN analyst Barry Melrose and others largely ignored the Yale team, instead focusing on the strengths of Boston College and North Dakota.
“I don’t think they know too much about college hockey, to be honest,” O’Neill said. “Last year Barry Melrose picked us to go to the Frozen Four, and obviously that didn’t happen.”
Coming off both the loss of Backman and the upset to Brown, O’Neill said that the Bulldogs see themselves as underdogs but that they will thrive off of this approach.
“Our team plays better with an underdog mentality,” he said. “In this tournament anything is possible.”
Little added that the team will have a renewed sense of motivation next week, something he said was never really there in the series against Brown.
“When we’re playing with heart and passion we’re a team to be reckoned with,” he said.
Yale’s game against North Dakota can be seen on ESPN360.com. The Northeast regional final will be televised on ESPNU at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Details about student tickets and transportation to Worcester are forthcoming.