BRIDGEPORT — Head coach Keith Allain ’80 called him the heart and soul of the men’s hockey team. He led Yale in scoring both last year and this year. He had two of Yale’s final five goals of the season.
And when Brian O’Neill ’12 was ejected 11:38 into the second period of Yale’s East Regional final matchup with Minnesota-Duluth for an alleged hit to the head, the Elis’ hopes for the season left the ice with him.
Although replays of the hit seemed to contradict the officials’ decision — ESPNU commentator Barry Melrose called the play “clean” — the call had been made. Five minutes later, Minnesota-Duluth had built a 5–1 lead from which Yale (28–7–1) never recovered.
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Just one day after the Elis earned a spot in the East Regional final with a thrilling overtime victory against Air Force, Yale’s championship dreams ended in a heartbreaking 5–3 defeat at the hands of Duluth (24–10–6). The loss dashed Yale’s hopes of advancing to the NCAA Frozen Four and ended both the winningest season in program history and the collegiate careers of the nine seniors who constitute the most successful class ever to don Yale hockey jerseys.
“I certainly don’t want to take the jersey off for the last time,” captain Jimmy Martin ’11 said. “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.”
Although the Elis fell in the national quarterfinals for the second consecutive year, the seniors led their team to its first national No. 1 ranking in Yale history. They captured the ECAC Tournament championship and came within a single point of the regular season title.
Martin, Broc Little ’11, Denny Kearney ’11 and goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 will all depart as holders of individual school records. The class collectively has won more games than any that preceded it. But on Saturday, those numbers were no consolation for the team.
“Tonight was brutal,” Little said after the game. “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.”
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Yale’s season could easily have ended on Friday. The Elis needed a diving overtime goal from Chad Ziegler ’12 to eliminate a scrappy Air Force squad.
Three minutes into the extra frame, Ziegler stretched his stick out just enough to knock the rebound of his own shot past sprawling Falcons goalie Jason Torf. The red light flashed, the Elis mobbed the right winger, and Yale earned a spot in the national quarterfinals with the dramatic win.
“I’ll tell you what, there ain’t a more relieved guy in the building right now than Keith Allain,” Air Force head coach Frank Serratore said after the game. “Because he knows he got a heck of a game from the guys from Air Force.”
Air Force was the last seed overall in the tournament, but the team still stifled the Eli offense all night Friday as they fought to outlast the favorites. They clogged passing lanes, blocked shots and came inches from the upset.
Even as Yale’s offense struggled to find holes among the cadets, its defense also shone. Led by Rondeau, who had not allowed a goal in three games, the Elis grounded Air Force’s attack.
“You just have to stay the course,” Martin. “Against a team that was playing so tough, you just have to stay within yourself and have the confidence that you can break through, which we did.”
That breakthrough in overtime lifted a crowd of 7,671 — most of which was clad in Yale blue — to its feet and prompted wild celebration by the Bulldogs. But the Eli victory was far from certain at any point during the game. The two teams were tied — first at zero and then at one — at each of the three intermissions, and Yale recorded the fewest shots it has all season.
Serratore said that his team’s solid defensive performance began with a “rope-a-dope” game plan to outlast the Elis, who he did not think could maintain their frenetic pace for 60 minutes.
But Yale got all the offense it needed in regulation, and Serratore could only watch as Ziegler pounced on a rebound, stretching onto his stomach, and hitting the puck just inside the post.
“When you’re the best team in the country, you get those bounces,” Air Force captain Jacques Lamoureux said.
Yale’s only other offense on the night came from O’Neill, who tapped a cross-ice feed from Nick Jaskowiak ’12 past Torf during the second period.
“O’Neill gives all he has not just every single night but every single shift,” Allain said. “He exposes his body to some pretty devastating hits, but he just gets up, goes; gets up, goes; gets up, goes.”
On Saturday, O’Neill didn’t just expose himself to hits. He dealt a big one, and Yale paid the price for it.
Seven second-period penalties, 29 total penalty minutes and a devastating ejection for O’Neill buried the Elis in a deficit they could not escape. Duluth punched its first ticket to the Frozen Four in seven years as solid goaltending from Kenny Reiter and an offense that capitalized on its chances carried the underdogs to a 5–3 win.
Duluth used a late shorthanded tally to end the first period with a 1–0 lead, but it did real damage in a four-goal second stanza dominated by the referees’ whistles. None of those whistles — which assigned 15 penalty minutes to Yale and four to Duluth — impacted the game more than the call on O’Neill.
The right winger had just narrowed Yale’s deficit to 3–1 when he one-timed a pass from Little just under the crossbar. But the referees promptly extinguished any Eli momentum that goal had sparked.
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. Journalists watching from the press box said they never saw O’Neill make contact with Hendrickson’s head, and replays convinced ESPN commentators that the hit was clean.
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 Jaskowiak put the Elis down two men.
It was obvious as the clock ticked away on Yale’s defeat Saturday that Yale’s seniors did not want the night to be their last on the ice. Little and Kearney both scored in the third, but despite their third-period efforts, Yale could not overcome the biggest deficit it had faced all season. Without their top scorer, the Elis became the third of four No. 1 seeds to suffer early elimination from the tournament.
Even though Nick Maricic ’13 replaced Rondeau in goal for the final frame 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 last 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,” Mike Matczak ’11 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.”