Sixty-one years. That’s how long it’s been since the men’s hockey team has been this close to an NCAA championship. On April 11, the Bulldogs will take the ice against UMass-Lowell in the Frozen Four only two wins away from the first national title in team history.
On Friday, March 29, and Saturday, March 30, in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Yale men’s hockey team finished one of its most explosive weekends ever, beating both the No. 2-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers and a second WCHA competitor, North Dakota, to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 1952, when the NCAA tournament only consisted of four teams. On Friday, the Bulldogs surrendered a two-goal lead in the third period, but responded to complete the 3–2 upset over the Gophers just nine seconds into overtime. The next night, Yale was held scoreless for the first 52 minutes of play before unleashing a four-goal onslaught and defeating the NoDaks 4–1.
The two games highlighted the Bulldogs’ prowess on both sides of the ice, but one key to each of their victories was their ability to make plays when it counted.
“Actions speak louder than words,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said at a postgame press conference. “That’s what you saw for six periods and nine seconds, and it speaks to the mental toughness of this team.”
Leading scorer Kenny Agostino ’14 tallied the Elis’ first goal of the weekend 7:08 into the second period against Minnesota when he ripped a shot over the shoulder of Gopher freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox on a power-play feed from captain Andrew Miller ’13. The Bulldogs struck again eight minutes later at even strength when defenseman Gus Young ’14 scored his second goal of the season on a pass from forward Clinton Bourbonais ’14.
Goaltender Jeff Malcolm ’13 and the Yale defense held the Gophers scoreless through the first and second periods and most of the third, but Minnesota broke loose when Nate Schmidt and Zach Buddish leveled the game in a five-minute span between the eight and 13-minute marks.
As both teams headed to the locker room, the ESPNU announcers commented on how Yale would be lucky to survive the first several minutes of overtime, but only seconds later announced, “Yale comes out and shocks everyone” when the exact opposite happened.
Nine seconds into overtime, Agostino flew up the ice on the forecheck and scooped up the puck behind the Gopher goal, hitting West Regional MVP Jesse Root ’14 for a one-timer right in front of the net that Root slammed past Wilcox to win the first round of the West Regional tournament.
The Bulldogs’ play looked less encouraging at the beginning of the North Dakota game, and they fell behind 1–0, but Yale kept up the pressure for the first and second periods and slowly chiseled away toward a victory until a block of goals came all at once.
“We had a pretty good third period going, but we had a couple penalties that pushed us back on our heels,” North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol said at the press conference.
Just over halfway through the final period of action, Anthony Day ’15 threw a low shot on net from wide on the right side that Josh Balch ’13 knocked in on the rebound to level the score.
Two minutes later, goaltender Jeff Malcolm ’13 was tripped behind his own net when he stepped out to play a loose puck, giving the Bulldogs a key power play late in the third period.
As Miller and Root raced up the ice together, Miller dished a cross-ice pass to Root on the far left faceoff dot, who then zipped a low shot over goaltender Clarke Saunders’ left pad for his second game-winning goal in as many days.
The Bulldogs sealed their first Frozen Four appearance in the past 61 years just two minutes later when forward Stu Wilson ’16 batted Anthony Day’s ’15 rebound out of the air and past Saunders to put the Elis up 3–1.
Agostino put the final nail in the coffin with one minute remaining when North Dakota turned the puck over in their own end after pulling their goalie. Agostino corralled the puck in the middle of the ice and put away an empty net goal to finish the scoring at 4–1.
“It’s a great accomplishment. It’s a great accomplishment for any team,” Miller said.
The Bulldogs’ last Frozen Four appearance was in 1952 when two teams were selected from the East and two from the West to compete in a tournament for the NCAA championship. Yale is the first Ivy League team to make the Frozen Four since the NCAA introduced the 16-game bracket format in 2003.
“We’ve been close the first two years [in the tournament],” said Balch, who made it to the NCAA regional finals with the Bulldogs in 2010 and 2011. “We’ve got a lot of will, a lot of heart. We’re going to get to work the next two weeks and we’re halfway home.”
Allain, who played goaltender for Yale from 1976–’80, left his position as goaltender coach for the St. Louis Blues to take over the head coaching job at his alma mater in 2006, and has coached his team to four NCAA tournament appearances in the past five years.
“I probably wouldn’t be coaching in college hockey if it wasn’t for the Yale job,” Allain said. “I was pretty comfortable working in the National Hockey League. Yale hockey has meant the world to me, and it will continue to do so.”
The Elis will take on UMass-Lowell in the first round of the Frozen Four at 4:30 on Thursday, April 11, at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The winner will play either Quinnipiac or St. Cloud State the next night in the NCAA Hockey national championship game.