April 3, 2011

From NEHJ: Region gets frozen out of Frozen Four

By Mike Zhe

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. 

Denny Kearney of Yale battles against Minnesota-Duluth (photo: Jack Warhola/NEHJ)

Denny Kearney of Yale battles against Minnesota-Duluth (photo: Jack Warhola/NEHJ)

They were knockout punches that neither team saw coming. Nor did just about anyone who pays attention at this time of year.

Separated by one day and half a country, top seeds Boston College and Yale both suffered one-sided upset losses in the NCAA tournament. And it was the way they were ousted — with arguably each team’s top player off the ice by game’s end — that upped the shock factor even more.

When Notre Dame single-handedly took care of the region’s other two NCAA representatives — Merrimack and New Hampshire, in that order at the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H. — the Frozen Four was set to take place without a New England participant for the first time since 2005.

“Obviously disappointed,” said Yale forward Denny Kearney (Hanover, N.H.), after his team fell to Minnesota-Duluth, 5-3, in the East Regional final in Bridgeport, Conn. “Not the way we pictured our season ending.”

Nobody pictured it. The Bulldogs, who’d needed overtime to get past Air Force, 2-1, in the regional semifinals a night earlier, found themselves in a 3-0 hole in the second period against Duluth after some shaky play. And then things got worse.

Brian O’Neill, Yale’s leading scorer, had pumped a little life into a deflating team with his goal midway through the second. But just eight seconds later, after a hit on Jake Hendrickson, he was slapped with a five-minute major penalty for contact to the head and a game misconduct, ending his night. The other Bulldogs turned the five-minute power play into two goals and took a 5-1 lead.

“In hindsight, the game was over then,” said Yale coach Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.). “We don’t feel that way in the middle of the game because we’re fighting our tails off until the final buzzer. But you look back on it, I think we had momentum, they took one of our top players out of the game and put him in the penalty box for five minutes … that’s a huge moment.”

The loss ended the best season in program history one step short of the Frozen Four, the second consecutive year the Bulldogs have bowed out in this round.

By the time Yale and Duluth took the ice Saturday evening, the college hockey world was still buzzing from top-seeded BC’s loss to fourth-seeded Colorado College, 8-4, in the West Regional semifinals in St. Louis.

The Eagles, champions of the Beanpot, Hockey East regular-season and Hockey East tournament titles, seemed to have all the pieces in place to make a run at their third national championship in four years. Against Colorado College, it took them just 19 seconds to grab a 1-0 lead when Jimmy Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) scored his 21st goal of the season.

And then? Four straight CC goals before the period was up, one on the power play and a critical shorthanded one late, the first of two the Eagles would allow in the game. Goalie John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.), who brought an NCAA record of 8-0 into the game, as well as an earned reputation as a big-game goalie, was pulled after two periods with the Eagles almost surreally down 7-2.

“It’s difficult,” Muse said afterward. “We’ve been up here (on the interview platform) a lot of times after big wins, but CC played well. We came out and scored after 19 seconds. They took it from there.”

“They were much better than we were in a lot of facets of the game,” said BC coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.).

Hockey fans weren’t done watching the Eagles, though. Two days after the game, junior leading scorer Cam Atkinson of Greenwich, Conn. (30-21-51 totals) signed a pro contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As New England Hockey Journal went to press, other members of the talented club were also facing decisions about their future.

Merrimack became the third team from the region to fall when Notre Dame ended its dream season in overtime, 4-3, when freshman Anders Lee squibbed the game-winner past goalie Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.), capping an OT that, to that point, had been carried by the Warriors.

The Warriors, who arrived in Manchester as the new kids on the NCAA block — “We’re working very hard not to get caught up in the bright lights,” said coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) — had a 3-1 lead in the second period. But the program’s first NCAA game in 23 years lacked a finish, even with all the shots they peppered goalie Mike Johnson with in the OT.

“Even winning the national championship, I would have been sad to see these seniors go,” Dennehy said. “The school’s in debt to them and the sacrifices they made.”

That left UNH. By the time the Wildcats took the ice in front of their home fans at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester to play Notre Dame, three of the Frozen Four spots had been sewn up — by Duluth, Michigan and North Dakota — and only one remained to be decided

The fourth-seeded ’Cats had played a masterful defensive game in their 3-1 upset of top-seeded Miami in the first round, holding the explosive RedHawks to 22 shots on net and blocking some 20 shots.

But after an early burst against the Irish, they sputtered, never giving the crowd at the Verizon a reason to get raucous. The back-breaker was a goal by Billy Maday with just five seconds left in the second period, turning a one-goal game into a 2-0 hole.

UNH’s punch line of seniors Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), Phil DeSimone and Mike Sislo, which had been ultra-productive all season, couldn’t really get untracked, though Sislo did manage a goal in each regional game.

“It’s a lot of disappointment,” said UNH coach Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.). “Once again, we had a great group of players and the senior class was tremendous. Two, three times, we’ve lost in the regional finals. I feel for them; they’ve done everything to get to the Frozen Four. It’s disappointing.”

Taken all around, not a memorable three days in these parts. Sure, there were moments: Yale’s Chad Ziegler beating Air Force in overtime. DiGirolamo and freshman forward Kevin Goumas introducing themselves in the upset of Miami. Merrimack’s presence in the national tournament.

But, for most, it ended too quickly. Much too quickly.

“I don’t know how well I’ll do summing it up,” said Yale senior defenseman Jimmy Martin, “but I can tell you, I don’t want to take the jersey off for the last time.”

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.