Chad Ziegler ’12 dived. Jason Torf did as well.
Three minutes into sudden-death overtime, Ziegler stretched his stick out just enough to connect with a loose puck and knock it past Air Force Academy’s sprawling goalie. The red light flashed, the Elis mobbed the right winger, and Yale (28–6–1) won a nail-biter of a hockey game in dramatic fashion Friday night. The Elis earned a spot in the national quarterfinals with the win, and will face No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth Saturday night.
“I’ll tell you what, there ain’t a more relieved guy in the building right now than Keith Allain,” Air Force head coach Frank Serratorre said after the game. “Because he knows he got a heck of a game from the guys from Air Force.”
Those “guys from Air Force” were the last seed overall in the tournament. Yale is the first. But the Falcons kept the Eli offense off the board and the Eli fans on the edge of their seats all night Friday as they fought to outlast the favorites. They clogged passing lanes, blocked shots, and quieted the vaunted Yale offense for the entire first and third periods.
The Falcons matched the Bulldogs stride for stride through all 63 minutes in Bridgeport’s Arena at Harbor Yard, hanging tight with a team that had scored 14 goals over its past three games. But even as Yale’s offense struggled to find holes among the cadets, its defense also shone. Led by goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11, who had not allowed a goal in three games, the Elis grounded Air Force’s attack.
“You just have to stay the course,” captain Jimmy Martin ’11. “Against a team that was playing so tough, you just have to stay within yourself and have the confidence that you can break through, which we did.”
That breakthrough in overtime lifted a crowd of 7,671 — most of which was clad in Yale blue — to its feet and prompted wild celebration by the Bulldogs. But the Eli victory was far from certain at any point during the game. The two teams were tied — first at zero and then at one — at each of the three intermissions. Yale recorded the fewest shots it has all season despite four attempts in overtime, and only one of the team’s top five scorers tallied a point.
Serratore said that his team’s solid defensive performance began with a “rope-a-dope” game plan to outlast the Elis, who he did not think could maintain their frenetic pace for 60 minutes.
The Falcons sustained Yale’s best efforts through a close, scoreless first period, but Brian O’Neill ’12 put his team ahead in the second stanza. Minutes after ringing a shot off the post, he found himself alone at the edge of the crease to tap in a cross-ice Nick Jaskowiak ’12 feed from the blue line.
“O’Neill is really the heart and soul of this team,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “He gives all he has not just every single night but every single shift. He exposes his body to some pretty devastating hits, but he just gets up, goes; gets up, goes; gets up, goes.”
Yale almost carried its narrow advantage into the third period, but Sean Bertsch knotted the score at one with a wraparound 1:26 before the end of the frame.
Rondeau had not allowed a goal in 240:53 when Bertsch ended his streak. He started a new streak immediately after Air Force tied the game. Although the Falcons matched Yale shot for shot for the rest of regulation and into overtime, even their best efforts were not enough to top the resolve of the Elis and heroics of Ziegler.
After Torf stopped a Nick Jaskowiak slap shot, Ziegler charged toward the net and sent the rebound back at the netminder. The puck floated back out, Ziegler stretched onto his stomach, and the game ended with the forward’s backhand just inside the post.
“When you’re the best team in the country, you get those bounces,” Air Force captain Jacques Lamoureux said.
Though Lamoureux’s Falcons had most of the scoring chances in the extra minutes, they simply could not convert them. Even Allain said Yale had fewer quality opportunities than its opponents in overtime.
But in the end, none of that mattered.
“Their legs were gone; they were playing on nothing but heart,” Serratore said of the Elis. “But that got them that overtime goal.”
Minnesota-Duluth, Yale’s next opponent, earned its slot in the national quarterfinals Friday afternoon with a 2–0 win over No. 8 Union.
Yale will take on the other Bulldogs, who have all dyed their hair blond and look like the cast of villains in a Cold War film, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Bridgeport.