In a storyline-rich East Regional of the NCAA men’s hockey tournament, only a single plot interests No. 10 Yale: one that comes with a sequel, set in two weeks’ time in sunny Tampa, Florida, the home of the 2016 Frozen Four.
But Florida is a long ways away — in distance and in the players’ minds — for the third-seeded Bulldogs (19–8–4, 14–5–3 ECAC Hockey), whose dance will open with a clash against second-seeded and No. 8 UMass Lowell (24–9–5, 12–6–4 Hockey East) in Albany, New York on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The game will follow the regional’s first matchup of No. 1 Quinnipiac and No. 36 Rochester Institute of Technology, the top and bottom seeds of both the East and the entire tournament.
“You’re not going to win a national championship without beating good hockey teams,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “We’ll be tested for sure.”
The regional comes with a pinch of deja vu for all four teams. Three of them made the 2013 Frozen Four, where Yale knocked off UMass Lowell in the national semifinal before taking down top-ranked Quinnipiac to win it all.
RIT, on the other hand, went dancing as the lowest-ranked team in the tournament last season as well. The Tigers, who are coached by the father of Yale forward Stu Wilson ’16, managed to knock off top-seeded Minnesota State in the first round.
“I think the [Albany bracket] is good,” Allain said. “I think they’re all good. When you get to this time of the year, I think that every team in every bracket has a chance to win.”
The Bulldogs will certainly be tested on Saturday, but the team will also be well-rested for the challenge — perhaps a bit more so than it would like.
Yale has played just two games in the month of March, both against Dartmouth in the ECAC Hockey Tournament quarterfinals, which resulted in a sweep for the Big Green. Yale’s pair of contests in the last four weekends marks a remarkable contrast from the Elis’ January and February, when the team took to the ice twice in every weekend but one.
“It’s unique. I don’t think we’ve ever gone 27 days and only played two games,” Allain said. “It’s something that we’re trying to address with our approach. We’ll certainly be fresh, and we’ll try to use that to our advantage, but [UMass Lowell is] certainly more battled-tested in the playoffs.”
Other usual Eli advantages — the team’s stifling defense and elite goaltending — will be matched better by the River Hawks, at least on paper, than by any team Yale has seen this season.
With 1.82 goals allowed per game, UMass Lowell sits directly behind the Bulldogs’ Division I-leading mark of 1.74. Meanwhile, Yale netminder Alex Lyon ’17, who leads the country with a 0.938 save percentage, will be challenged by senior River Hawk goalie Kevin Boyle, whose 0.935 rate is tied for third nationwide in the same category.
That strong back end has consistently proven to be able to hold River Hawk leads for long stretches: UMass Lowell is 14–0–4 when leading after one period.
“Lowell is a great team,” forward Mike Doherty ’17 said. “Like us, they don’t like to give teams space in their own end, and they play a disciplined two-way game. We will have to be moving to be able to create chances offensively.”
Also like Yale, UMass Lowell is now playing in the tournament for third time in four seasons, meaning the veteran River Hawks enter with plenty of national tournament experience — not to mention the playoff experience that the current UMass Lowell team gained by making the Hockey East finals earlier this month.
A quarterfinals sweep of No. 9 Boston University and a triple-overtime win over No. 4 Providence in Lowell’s conference tournament semis mean that the River Hawks have already played the equivalent of five postseason contests, rounded out by a loss to red-hot No. 13 Northeastern in the Hockey East championship.
And with a 9–5–2 record against tournament teams this year, UMass Lowell has had plenty of practice against the level of competition Yale is bound to provide. The Bulldogs have had just six games against tournament opponents, and, entering Saturday, sport a relatively underwhelming 2–3–1 record in those contests.
Nevertheless, with seven players who have won a national championship, the best penalty kill in NCAA history, the nation’s top defense and multiple weeks to heal and prepare, the team is certainly confident as it makes the trip north the capital of the Empire State.
“Having the tournament experience is huge for the team,” forward Frankie DiChiara ’17 said. “Our seniors have been to three tournaments in their four years here, winning the national championship their freshmen year. Having that experience will be vital to our success this year. … Four wins gets you that national championship, and the experience the team has in the tournament will hopefully help us reach that.
Quinnipiac–RIT is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Times Union Center, with Yale–UMass Lowell to follow.