PITTSBURGH — It’s not every day that an Ivy League hockey team upsets two NHL prospect-laden national powerhouses on the way to the Frozen Four. In fact, the last time Yale earned a spot among the final four teams in the NCAA hockey tournament was 61 years ago.
As the men’s hockey team arrives in Pittsburgh Tuesday night for the first time since 1925 for its first NCAA Frozen Four game since 1952, the legacy of the 2012-’13 Bulldogs squad is on the line as it faces off against the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks at 4:30 p.m. in the national championship semi-final game. As the two East coast teams line up against each other in the first game of the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs expect hard-nosed play and quick transitions coming from each side.
“They compete hard on the puck, and they transition quite well when they get it back going from defense to offense,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “So we have to be on our toes.”
While the attack, defense and special teams will all have to be sharp in tonight’s game, the chance at a national title may hinge on which goalie is in better form.
Goaltending may, in fact, be UMass-Lowell’s most prominent strength.
Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck leads all of Division I men’s hockey with six shutouts and a save percentage of 0.953, boasting a 1.31 goals-against-average with only two losses out of his 20 games played.
While Yale’s Jeff Malcolm ’13 has a slightly lower save percentage at 0.916 and has surrendered about one more goal per game on average than Hellebuyck, he has performed tremendously since his return from injury on Feb. 23, especially in the playoffs. In the past two games against Minnesota and North Dakota, he stopped 50 shots for a 0.943 save percentage.
On the attack, both teams have explosive individual offensive leaders.
Team captain Andrew Miller ’13 has 37 points in 35 games, coming in at No. 30 in the nation, while forward Kenny Agostino ’14 has recorded 40 points past the opposition this season to rank as the No. 17 scorer in the country. Meanwhile, UMass forwards Scott Wilson and Joseph Pendeza have scored 37 points apiece to tie with Miller at the No. 30 spot.
Despite the high individual skill level of both teams, one of the most important aspects of championship games is special teams, in which the 11th most efficient power play in the country at a 21.12 percent scoring rate gives Yale a clear edge. The River Hawks power play lags behind with a 16.93 success rate and a No. 32 national ranking.
“They’re very quick, they’re tenacious and seem to have great special teams,” Lowell head coach Norm Bazin said at a press conference Wednesday. “They’re well-coached and another good opponent.”
Bazin left Division III Hamilton in 2011 to take over the helm at Lowell, where he played in college, and has led the River Hawks to the first Frozen Four in team history in his sophomore campaign. On Wednesday, Bazin was named the 2013 winner of the Spencer Penrose Award as the top coach in Division I men’s hockey.
Yale’s Allain, who was named a finalist for this year’s Penrose Award, has taken seven years since he took over the Bulldog hockey program to reach the Frozen Four, but players said it was only a matter of time before Allain’s steady progress took Yale to where it has been only one time before.
The season before Allain left his position as goaltending coach for the St. Louis Blues to take the head job at his alma mater, the Bulldogs went 10–20–3. Just two years later, Allain led the Elis to their first-ever ECAC Tournament championship and a year later coached Yale to its first NCAA Tournament win since 1952. The progress Allain has driven culminated this year in Yale’s return to the Frozen Four.
Although Yale barely squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 15 seed and will be facing the No. 3-ranked team in the country, the Bulldogs do not consider themselves longshots for the national title.
“I personally don’t see us as underdogs,” defenseman Colin Dueck ’13 said. “I think people might choose different teams for different reasons, but I think we’re very confident coming in. We played some pretty good teams in Grand Rapids and we came out of that.”
The second game of the night, between Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State, will begin at 8:05 p.m., after the conclusion of Yale’s matchup with UMass-Lowell. The winners of these contests will face each other in the national championship game on Saturday.