ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The men’s hockey team has one championship in hand. Now it’s about to chase another one.
Three weeks after the Bulldogs lost a close contest for the ECAC regular season crown, Yale finally earned the chance to hoist a trophy Saturday night. That prize was for the ECAC Tournament championship, which the Elis (27–6–1, 17–4–1 ECAC) captured with a 6–0 thrashing of Cornell (16–15–3, 11–9–2). The Elis, who had beaten Colgate (11–28–3, 4–15–3) to advance to the final, led for all but three minutes and matched a shutout effort by Ryan Rondeau ’11 with a relentless attack. The win — Yale’s second tournament title in three years — sets the team on a hot streak as it prepares to open its campaign for an even bigger crown: the national title. The NCAA announced Sunday that Yale is the No. 1 overall seed for the tournament and will face Air Force on Friday night in Bridgeport.
“It’s a big difference from last year, when we sat around for two weeks and practiced and tried to get back into our game,” Broc Little ’11 said, referring to his team’s early exit from the ECAC playoffs last season. “This year we’re going into the tournament playing our best hockey.”
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Yale’s best hockey was more than Cornell could handle, and the Elis will hope the same holds when it takes on the Falcons in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Air Force used a furious third-period comeback to defeat Yale earlier this season, but that game took place at high altitude in Colorado. Friday’s game will be played for much higher stakes in Bridgeport, a quick bus ride from New Haven.
The past weekend’s championship contests in Atlantic City were much further from home. Nor was Boardwalk Hall anything like Ingalls Rink. The cavernous stadium has a gold-column flanked stage at one end and holds more than 10,000 fans — though only a third of the seats were filled.
Despite the strange setting, Yale played its finest brand of hockey in both of its dominant wins over the weekend. The offense clicked, the defense clicked, and the champions outscored their opponents by a combined 10–0 margin.
“We were able to score six goals, but I was most pleased that we were sound defensively,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said on Saturday. “Everyone committed to defense and that’s exactly what you need in the playoffs.”
Yale’s defense — which is the stingiest in the nation — will continue to shine on the national stage if Rondeau maintains his hot hand. The netminder posted shutouts in both of the weekend’s games and lowered his goals against average, which was already the lowest in the country, to a mere 1.83. Though he was overlooked in the end-of-season accolades the ECAC announced Friday, Rondeau was named the most outstanding player of the championship weekend after saving all 44 shots he faced.
While Rondeau’s third consecutive shutout earned him a slew of school records, he said he tries not to focus on his individual numbers, and cares mostly about seeing his team win.
“You have to have the same routine for every game, whether you see 20 shots or 30 or 40, and whether you’re winning or losing,” he said. “The same routine, the same preparation, the same focus.”
Rondeau’s perfect effort in net was especially important Friday night, when Colgate held Yale to a single goal through the first two periods. The last-place Raiders had already upset RPI and Union — the two ECAC teams other than Yale that earned spots in the national tournament — in the playoffs, and looked poised to threaten another favorite.
“They were clearly the league’s hottest team,” Allain said. “And they gave us everything we could handle.”
But everything Colgate had was not enough. The Elis struck three times in the third period and Rondeau shut the door on every Raider comeback effort he faced. Linemates Chris Cahill ’11, Brian O’Neill ’12 and Andrew Miller ’13 — who were awarded the three forward slots on the all-tournament team — combined for seven points and two goals, and Yale wore Colgate down with its relentless speed.
“You look down for a second, and all of sudden they have a forward flying down the other end,” Colgate assistant captain Francois Brisebois said.
If Yale wore Colgate down over three periods Friday, it took just three minutes against Cornell the next night to take control of the game. Kevin Limbert ’12 gave Yale the lead before most fans had settled into their seats when he beat rookie Big Red goalie Andy Iles on the power play.
Limbert struck again to make the score 2–0 with a power play deflection of a Jimmy Martin ’11 slap shot later in the period. Normally the least noticed player on a line that includes star forwards Little and Denny Kearney ’11, Limbert has ratcheted up his production as of late — with two goals against Cornell, and six points in his last three games.
“We were able to jump out to the early lead, but we knew that this was a good team and that any big play could be the one that starts the comeback,” said Kearney, who had three assists in the game.
But Rondeau stood strong and any realistic Cornell hopes for a comeback were dashed when the floodgates opened in the second period. Colin Dueck ’13 chased Iles from the game with his first career goal, which made the score 5–0. Yale had needed only 15 shots to take that lead. Mike Garman — who had shut out Dartmouth in Friday’s other semifinal — fared better than his counterpart and stopped everything but a Little wrist shot. But the damage was done and the Elis were soon taking turns hoisting the championship trophy.
The team donned championship hats after the game and celebrated the chance to call itself No. 1. Still, Little said the ECAC title will not distract the Bulldogs from their ultimate goal of winning the NCAA championship.
Yale will have to win four more games in a row to claim the national title, and its next two to earn a berth at the Frozen Four in Minnesota. Although the Elis upset North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, they fell one game short of the Frozen Four after losing to eventual national champion Boston College.
But for a few moments at least on Saturday night, the Elis seemed focused neither on that past NCAA tournament nor on next week’s games. Gloves and sticks flew into the air and the Blue mobbed Rondeau before taking turns at hoisting the championship trophy. Even the usually stoic Allain donned a championship cap and, at the bidding of “Keith! Keith! Keith!” cheers from the crowd, lifted the trophy himself.
Yale returns to the ice against Air Force at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport for the first round of the NCAA East Regional. If Yale wins, it will play at the same time and place Saturday against the victor of a Friday contest between Union and Minnesota-Duluth.