PITTSBURGH — When Yale and Quinnipiac face off on Saturday evening, the stakes will be the highest their programs have ever seen.
This is no normal East Coast Athletic Conference hockey game. This is the NCAA Division I national championship. And both the Bulldogs and the Bobcats are seeking their first D1 crown.
While Quinnipiac’s Hamden campus is just down the road from New Haven, the two schools’ paths to the Frozen Four could not have been farther apart.
Quinnipiac has topped the national polls for most of the season and was the clear No. 1 seed heading into the postseason. Yale has been upsetting higher-ranked seeds since it slipped into the NCAA tournament after Notre Dame’s defeat of Michigan gave the Elis the last available slot.
The Bobcats have walked to the national championship, defeating all three contestants in the NCAA tournament handily. They beat Canisius 4–3, Union 5–1 and St. Cloud 4–1 on their Division I hockey conquest. Yale, on the other hand, has scratched and clawed its way to the national title game, upsetting Minnesota, North Dakota and UMass-Lowell, two wins of which the Bulldogs fought to pull out in overtime.
Saturday’s game will be only the second time in tournament history that two ECAC teams have competed in the Frozen Four finals. The first and last instance was in 1970, when Cornell defeated Clarkson, 6–4, and a Big Red defenseman opened up the game with a natural hat trick.
Harvard was the last ECAC team to win the Frozen Four, topping Minnesota 4–3 in overtime, in 1989.
Yale has faced Quinnipiac three times this season. Though the Elis have lost all three games, they have come closer to a win each time. In the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 2, Yale jumped out to a 2–0 lead in the first period but the Bobcats responded with six unanswered goals. The Bulldogs were able to narrow the deficit to three goals in a 4–1 loss on Feb. 22, and in the ECAC third-place game where they fell to Quinnipiac 3–0, but had two questionable goals called back.
Coming into the national championship, the Bulldogs know what to expect from the Bobcats. They will face a challenge they have seen in every game this NCAA tournament: outstanding goaltending. In the first round, Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox stopped 23 of 26 shots and forced the game into overtime. Against North Dakota, Clarke Saunders boasted a 0.921 save percentage and held the Bulldogs to zero until the third period. Last night against UMass, freshman Connor Hellebuyck stopped 44 of 47 shots for a 0.936 save percentage — something most goaltenders dream of having.
When the Elis face off against Quinnipiac, they will take on Eric Hartzell for the fourth time. Hartzell leads Division I hockey in minutes played, has posted the second-most shutouts of any goaltender with five, and has the lowest goals-against-average in the ECAC at 1.53.
The Bulldogs have momentum and performance under pressure on their side, however. Jeff Malcolm ’13 has kept the Bulldogs in every overtime game this season and has made key saves in two overtime NCAA tournament games in this year’s playoff run.
The schools will be evenly matched on special teams. With a 21.21 percent conversion rate and a No. 10 national ranking, Yale’s power play towers over Quinnipiac’s No. 41 ranked unit. But the Bobcats will answer Yale’s offensive strength with a penalty kill that has shut down 159 of 175 power plays this season, and a team defense that allows an average of 1.62 goals through per game — both No. 1 in the country. Then again, Yale managed three goals against Minnesota in the West Regional, the nation’s third-best team defense with an average of two goals allowed per game.
Regardless of who wins the game, one team will come out with its first national title and become the 19th program on the list of Frozen Four victors. The puck drops at 7 p.m. on Saturday.