BRIDGEPORT — When Brian O’Neill ’12 was ejected 11:38 into the second period for an alleged hit to the head, the game was as good as over.

Minnesota-Duluth’s two goals during the ensuing five-minute major penalty lifted it to a 5–1 lead, and Yale (28–7–1) never recovered. The Elis’ 5–3 loss dashed their hopes of advancing to the Frozen Four and ended both the winningest season in program history and the collegiate careers of the most successful class ever to don Yale hockey jerseys.

“I certainly don’t want to take the jersey off for the last time,” said captain Jimmy Martin ’11. “It’s been an honor to play for the University. It’s got such a great hockey tradition, and it’s an honor for our class to be a part of that now.”

It was obvious as the clock ticked away on Yale’s defeat Saturday that Yale’s seniors did not want the night to end. Despite the commanding lead held by Duluth (24–10–6), Martin and his classmates made their presence felt at both ends of the ice.

Broc Little ’11 momentarily restored hope to a silent crowd with a power play goal eight minutes into the final stanza that made the score 5–2. Denny Kearney ’11 brought Yale within striking distance five minutes later with a goal of his own. Martin earned the primary assist on that goal, and he and defensive partner Mike Matczak ’11 remained physical forces throughout the period.

Put simply, the team’s nine seniors will leave big shoes to fill.

“It’s going to be very difficult to see them go,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “I don’t think I’m prepared to eulogize them properly tonight, but it’s more than just the numbers. It’s their personalities, and the life that they’ve given Yale hockey, and what they’ve done for me personally. They’re an extremely special group.”

The leadership of the graduating class has boosted Yale hockey to its most successful season ever. Although the team fell in the national quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, it set a school record for wins and achieved the first national No. 1 ranking in Yale history. It captured the ECAC Tournament championship and came within a single point of the regular season title.

Martin, Little, Kearney, and goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 will all depart as the holders of individual school records. The class as a whole has won more games than any that preceded it. On Saturday, those numbers were no consolation for the team.

“Tonight was brutal,” Little said. “It was a fun four years and we had some success, but we wanted to play two more games. We thought we could do it.”

At the beginning of Saturday’s game, Yale did look capable of beating Duluth and advancing to its first Frozen Four since 1952. The Elis outshot their opponents by a 14–6 margin in the first period, but Duluth goalie Kenny Reiter shut the door and his team made the most of its few chances. Mike Connolly reversed an Eli advantage when he scored on a shorthanded two-on-one exactly two minutes before the end of the period.

The Duluth goals kept coming in a second period dominated by the referees’ whistles. The Elis entered the stanza trailing by a single goal and, seven penalties and 29 penalty minutes later, skated into the locker room down 5–1. None of those penalties affected the game more than the call on O’Neill.

Duluth had seized a 3–0 lead halfway through the second period. O’Neill brought the game back within reach when he one-timed a pass from Little just under the crossbar. But if the goal from the right winger sparked any Yale momentum, the referees promptly extinguished it.

Eight seconds after his goal, O’Neill leveled Duluth’s Jake Hendrickson with a hard open-ice hit. Whistles blew immediately, and soon O’Neill had been assessed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for contact to the head. Those watching from the press box said they never saw O’Neill make contact with Hendrickson’s head, and the hit looked clean on tape.

Asked about the call after the game, Allain left no doubt about his opinion of the call, and pointedly told reporters to “look at the tape, and tell me what you think.”

“I thought we had momentum, and then they gave Brian a five-minute penalty and kicked him out of the game,” Allain said. “[They] took our best player out of the game.”

Duluth scored two goals on the ensuing power play, including one after a penalty on Nick Jaskowiak ’12 put the Elis down two men. Despite Little’s and Kearney’s third period-efforts, Yale could not overcome the biggest deficit it had faced all season without its top scorer, and became the third of four No. 1 seeds to suffer early elimination from the tournament .

Even though Nick Maricic ’13 replaced Rondeau in the goal for the third period and turned aside everything he faced, Minnesota mustered all the defense it needed to clinch its first Frozen Four appearance since 2004. When the buzzer sounded on the game, and on Yale’s season, the Elis gave one final salute to the few Yale faithful who remained chanting “Let’s go Yale” in the student section until the end.

“It’s tough to put this in perspective at this point,” Matczak said, “It’s been an honor playing for this team. Unfortunately, we came up a minute short, but it was a hell of a ride.”