ALBANY, N.Y. — In a season already replete with accolades, the men’s hockey team outdid itself this weekend, clinching its first ever ECAC tournament championship title at the 48th Annual ECAC Hockey Championship Tournament.
A night after a dramatic 4-3 comeback victory against No. 14 St. Lawrence in the semifinals, the No. 7 Bulldogs (24-7-2, 15-5-2 ECAC) ensured there would be no need for any late-game heroics with a resounding 5-0 win over No. 9 Cornell on Saturday in the tournament finals.
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Right winger Sean Backman ’10, the ECAC Championship MVP, led the Bulldogs with three goals over the weekend, while right winger Broc Little ’11 added a goal and three assists.
Alec Richards ’09 was impressive in net in both games for the Elis, making a combined 58 saves over the weekend. Richards kept the Bulldogs within striking distance late in the game against St. Lawrence in order to enable the dramatic comeback to occur. The senior netminder prevented the Big Red (21-9-4, 13-6-3) from mounting a comeback of their own on Saturday, and, in doing so, posted his sixth career shutout — a Yale record.
“We had this goal coming into the beginning of the season, and for us to fulfill it, you can’t even explain it,” Backman said about the tournament championship. “We couldn’t be more happy.”
NOT EVEN CLOSE
With both teams coming off emotional comeback victories in the semifinals, the stage was set for a titan clash at the Times Union Center between two of the ECAC’s best teams. Yet after a marathon two-overtime win against No. 8 Princeton on Friday, Cornell just didn’t have the legs to keep up with Yale’s notoriously speedy skaters the next night.
Despite being outshot by Cornell 27-24, the Bulldogs generated more high-quality scoring opportunities than the Big Red and executed their scoring chances to perfection for a resounding victory. Three of Yale’s five goals came in transition, as precise passing enabled the Elis to get high-percentage shots, which Cornell goalie Ben Scrivens — one of the nation’s elite goaltenders, ranked fourth in the nation with 1.77 goals against average — could not keep out of the net.
“We were able to finally get some real nice goals tonight and set up some back door feeds,” Little said. “On a couple of them, I don’t think Scrivens had a chance. It was nice to get rewarded and get some finishing tonight, because we’ve had games when we had tons of shots and it hasn’t gone our way.”
Backman opened the scoring for the Elis 14:12 into the first on a weak side tap-in off a great crossing feed from center Brian O’Neill ’12. The play started back in Yale’s defensive zone, with right defenseman Nick Jaskowiak ’12 finding O’Neill with a long pass that reached him just before Cornell’s blueline, as the Bulldogs’ transitioned from defense to offense in a matter of seconds.
Left winger Denny Kearney ’11 and O’Neill scored in the second frame to stretch Yale’s lead out to 3-0. Kearney’s effort was one of the Elis’ best team goals of the season, as the sophomore forward combined with linemates Kevin Limbert ’12 and Little for another weak side tap-in.
As the Big Red pushed forward looking to get back into the game, Richards continuously held strong, denying Cornell whenever they penetrated Yale’s stingy defense.
Backman added two more in the third period to solidify the rout against a tired Cornell team. The junior forward’s final tally came after the resilient Big Red had pulled their goalie midway through the period despite a seemingly insurmountable four-goal deficit.
Once the final buzzer sounded, captain and right winger Matt Nelson ’09 was presented with the championship cup on ice, much to the delight of the Bulldog faithfuls who had made the trek to Albany.
“I would like to say how proud I am of this group of kids,” head coach Keith Allain, the ECAC Coach of the Year, said after the game. “People don’t realize the price they paid for this championship, how hard they worked. I think it was March 31 this time last year that we started our training with our coaches to get ready for this. They’ve really put the time in, and it’s tremendous to see them get rewarded for their efforts.”
Yale won all three meetings against Cornell, a perennial college hockey powerhouse, this season.
Yet had it not been for a late-game rally, the Bulldogs would have been denied their first-ever ECAC tournament championship final berth by St. Lawrence (21-12-5, 11-7-4), the only division opponent Yale had not yet defeated this season.
The Elis trailed the Saints 3-2 with less than two minutes remaining in the game, but goals from center Mark Arcobello ’10 and Nelson within a matter of 22 game seconds gave Yale a dramatic 4-3 victory.
“We were down a couple times during the game, and we’ve come back before, so we knew we could do it,” Backman said. “It was just a question of how to do it, and luckily enough we were able to come out on top tonight.”
Allain called a time out with 1:34 remaining in the game in order to draw up a face-off play for the ensuing offensive zone draw. The stoppage also allowed Allain to pull netminder Alec Richards and stack his lineup with some of the team’s best offensive players in hopes of tying things up. The move paid off, as Arcobello’s shot looped into the back of the net just six seconds after the face-off to tie things up at three.
Twenty-two seconds later, Nelson notched the game-winner on a tap-in off a lead pass from linemate Brendan Mason ’11. Once the Bulldogs had successfully conserved their lead during the final 1:06 of play, the miraculous turn of events was complete, and the dejected expressions of the stunned SLU players said it all.
“I really don’t remember much about coming up the ice, I just saw Mason coming up 2-on-1 with me, and he feathered a perfect saucer pass,” Nelson said of his goal. “I knew that if I didn’t bury that I was going to take a lot of heat for a long time so I just made sure the thing found the back of the net and it was an awesome feeling.”
After the Saints jumped out to a 1-0 lead after the first period of play, goals from Little and right defenseman Ken Trentowski ’11 in quick succession gave the Elis a 2-1 lead early in the second period.
Saints defenseman Zach Miskovic, who leads the nation in goals for defenseman with 16, tied things up with a screaming top-shelf slapper midway through the period, and St. Lawrence regained the lead at 16:54 thanks to a breakaway goal from forward Kevin DeVergilio. The Saints — who kept up with Yale’s notoriously speedy skaters all night — caught the Bulldogs’ defensemen in the offensive zone, as defenseman Derek Keller’s clearance ricocheted off the boards and right into a streaking DeVergilio’s path. With no one but the goaltender to beat, DeVergilio faked out Alec Richards and slid the puck into the empty right side of the net.
Despite the fact the Elis were outshot 17-8 during the final frame, the Bulldog defense held strong during the third period, enabling the dramatic comeback to occur. Yale survived a 5-on-3 situation for St. Lawrence that lasted almost 90 seconds, and right defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11 bailed out Richards by using his body to block a shot on the goal line in order to keep the Elis within striking distance.
“I thought it was a great college hockey game,” Allain said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Marsh and his team at St. Lawrence. They’re the hottest team in the nation right now in Division I hockey, so we knew it was going to be a great game. I’m extremely proud of our kids, they stuck with it all game long, all season long, and tonight we got the result we wanted.”
BEFORE THE MAIN EVENT
Cornell reached the finals by defeating Princeton 4-3 in a marathon double overtime thriller in the second semifinal of the night on Friday. In a somewhat similar scenario to the first semifinal, the Big Red dramatically erased a two-goal deficit with less than three minutes remaining in the game to send things into overtime. Cornell forward Riley Nash’s game-tying goal with 24.1 seconds left was the second one of the night to be scored while the goaltender was pulled in favor of an extra attacker on the ice.
With the momentum swinging their way after the end of regulation time, the Big Red completed their dramatic comeback in the second sudden-death overtime when junior forward Colin Greening’s wrister found the back of the net midway through the 20-minute period.
Prior to this weekend, Yale had breezed through the ECAC semifinals to punch their ticket to Albany. As the regular season division champions, the top seeded Bulldogs — who were picked in the pre-season to finish seventh in the league — swept Brown in two games at Ingalls Rink in the quarterfinals.
Eli players and coaches were all smiles in the post-game press conference on Saturday, but they said they were by no means content with just the ECAC championship.
“We’ll obviously have some fun with this one, celebrate it for a day, then put the trophy in the closet and start focusing on next week,” Nelson said. “We’ll have plenty of time to look back on the season when the season’s over, but for now our sights are set on Friday night.”
“We’ve been lucky enough to see some of our goals realized thus far,” Nelson added. “The energy we have in the locker room is unbelievably high, guys are excited to be playing hockey this late in March. We all know anything can happen, we just want to bring our best effort day-to-day. It’s definitely been something special, and we just hope it goes on and on.”