Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yale Wins NCAA DI National Championship

Yale coach Keith Allain and the Bulldogs' seniors with the national championship trophy

The Yale University Bulldogs won the first NCAA Division I men's national championship of Penn State's NCAA DI era with a surprisingly decisive 4-0 win over Quinnipiac Saturday night at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center.

It would take an entire post to fully explore the unlikeliness of Yale ending as the last team standing of the 59 in DI. But start with the usual restrictions on Ivy League teams - admissions, academics, scholarships and scheduling - that only Cornell and Harvard have successfully navigated in the history of college hockey. Continue through a long history of fairly limited success that only began to change when head coach Keith Allain took over in 2006 and a solid-but-unspectacular 2012-2013 record of 18-12-3 as of the point Union and Quinnipiac dumped the Bulldogs from the ECAC Tournament by a combined 8-0 score. Yale needed Michigan to lose to Notre Dame in the CCHA championship game just to qualify for the NCAA Tournament as the 15th seed of 16 teams. They then had to battle three top seeds, a second seed, and a 23-year streak of conference failure at the NCAAs that prompted detractors to label the collection of 12 proud institutions as the "EZAC."

Yale conquered all of it. In the West Region's semifinal on March 29th, Jesse Root, a Pittsburgh native who played with former Ice Lions captain Jim Recupero on the Pittsburgh Hornets, buried Minnesota and their 15 NHL draft picks just nine seconds into overtime. That 3-2 result, combined with Lowell's blowout of Wisconsin shortly after, saw all qualifying members of the coming Big Ten eliminated within the first two games of the tournament. Against North Dakota, which boasts 14 NHL selections of their own (Yale, by the way, has four), Josh Balch, Root, Stu Wilson and Kenny Agostino supplied a four-goal third-period barrage to definitively flip the Fighting Sioux's 1-0 lead after 40 minutes and propel the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four. In the national semifinals, Yale posted another 3-2 overtime win, this time over Hockey East champion UMass-Lowell and with captain Andrew Miller providing the heroics.

That set up a championship tilt with Quinnipiac, another Connecticut-based ECAC team, one located just 7.9 miles down Whitney Avenue from New Haven in Hamden. QU - largely a commuter school into the 1990s and one that has only had DI hockey since 1999 - behind goaltender Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker finalist, and a strong senior class, was a surprise top-ranked team in the country for much of the season and the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Giant slayer Yale, however, went blow for blow with the Bobcats during an incredible first 40 minutes that caused no less of an authority than PSU captain Tommy Olczyk's brother Eddie, a graduating forward at Massachusetts, to declare the contest "maybe the best hockey game I've ever seen, period."

Hartzell faltered with just 3.5 seconds remaining in the second period when he allowed Clinton Bourbonais' redirection of a Gus Young shot from the bottom of the circle to slip through for a 1-0 Yale lead. Early in the third, Bourbonais found Charles Orzetti streaking down left wing. Orzetti's initial shot from range was turned aside, but the freshman tracked down his rebound and fired five hole from an extremely tight angle to make it 2-0. After that second fairly weak goal the Bobcats, which had arguably been the better team to that point, deflated some, allowing Miller's breakaway goal off a feed from Agostino and Root's empty netter to render much of the final period disappointingly academic. Bulldog goaltender Jeff Malcolm was spectuclar in making 36 saves to earn the game's first star on his 24th birthday.

What does it all mean for Penn State? Perhaps most significantly, Yale's win (along with Quinnipiac's high seed and advancement to the championship game, itself a great story that shouldn't be lost in defeat) may indicate a new era of parity in college hockey. After Harvard's 1989 championship - the last for the ECAC until now - and Lake Superior State's brief rise to prominence under Frank Anzalone and Jeff Jackson, every single national title from 1995 through 2010 was taken home by one of the blue bloods: Boston University, Boston College, Michigan, Michigan State, North Dakota, Maine, Minnesota, Denver or Wisconsin. In 2011, Minnesota-Duluth broke the string, emerging from years of mediocrity to win a first title. Last season's NCAA Tournament, despite BC ultimately taking it, was noted for the presence of Cinderellas Ferris State and Union in the Frozen Four. This season's semifinals doubled that with all four programs (St. Cloud State and UMass-Lowell joined Yale and QU) seeking a first-ever national title.

In short, NCAA Division I hockey has arguably never been more ripe for unlikely programs to find success. And that's a good thing if your program just completed its first season at the DI level. Put that trend together with a blue-and-white clad team winning every single championship since PSU entered the fray (okay, that one's a little more tenuous), and the future looks promising for the Nittany Lions.

Empty seats at the Consol Energy Center were prominent during Thursday's semifinals

Another storyline with some relation with PSU was Pittsburgh's role as host of the Frozen Four, which received mostly positive reviews from observers on the heels of numerous articles written about the city's emergence as a hockey market in the buildup to the event. The major negative: Although ticket sales represented near-sellouts of 17,428 (semifinals) and 18,184 (championship game), it was the worst-attended Frozen Four since 2006's championships in Milwaukee, and overwhelming numbers of empty seats visible during Thursday's semifinals presented an ugly backdrop to the games. Fortunately, the crowd for Saturday's final went a long way towards redeeming things, with a full house of much-more-involved patrons including a sturdy presence of Penn State fans, according to eyewitness reports.

Philadelphia will host next year's Frozen Four, and will undoubtedly seek to one-up their cross-commonwealth archrivals. Penn State's second chance to compete for a close-to-home national championship begins just 180 days from now, against Army on October 11th at the nearly-complete Pegula Ice Arena.

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