PITTSBURGH – Andrew Miller came into the post-game press conference Thursday night wearing a garish old-school Jofa hockey helmet – an award from his Yale teammates for what he had done just a little while before.
Thanks to Miller, the Bulldogs may soon be getting fitted for a crown.
Miller scored six minutes and 59 seconds into overtime Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center to give Yale a 3-2 win over UMass-Lowell in the national semifinal, giving the program its first-ever trip to an NCAA championship game.
“Until we play Saturday night,” said coach Keith Allain, “that’s probably the biggest goal in the history of Yale hockey.”
Miller scored that historic goal on a strong net drive set up by a Carson Cooper steal. The fourth-line center fed the second-line winger, who is Yale’s second-leading scorer with 38 points, and Miller was off to the races. He peeled around UML defenseman Greg Amlong and tucked a backhander between the legs of freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (44 saves).
The Bulldogs (21-12-3) advance in just the second trip to the national semifinals in their history. Yale had previously reached this point in 1952, when the tournament only consisted of four teams. And despite being the 15th seed in the tournament, and despite having earned a berth only because of a favorable result in another league’s championship game, the Bulldogs are one step away from being crowned the champions of college hockey – a most unusual possibility in a most unusual year.
To get there, Yale had to fend off a UMass-Lowell team that won the Hockey East regular season and tournament championships, then motored through the Northeast Regional to earn its ticket to Pittsburgh.
But once the teams took the ice, as UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin said, “the tables were turned.” The River Hawks (28-11-2) looked sluggish for much of the game, and other than an outburst in the second period that brought them two goals separated by 14 seconds, they rarely had any sustained offensive pressure.
“Line after line, D-pair after D-pair,” Allain said, “we came after Lowell, came after Lowell.”
That relentlessness served the Bulldogs well – and early. They started their first national semifinal in 61 years in earnest, using a strong power play to score two goals in the first period and take a 2-0 lead to the locker room.
As the final seconds burned off of a Shayne Thompson high sticking call midway through the first, Mitch Witek took a point-to-point pass from Carson Cooper and fired a wrist shot through a screen set up by Kenny Agostino. Hellebuyck had trouble locating the shot and it went past his left arm for the first goal.
The second Yale goal was an even strength tally, but it came from another productive power play. UML’s Joe Houk was called for tripping with 3:01 to go in the first, and shortly before the penalty ended, Josh Holmstrom had the puck on his stick with a chance to clear.
His attempt never left the ice, however, and after Gus Young (Dedham, Mass.) deftly stopped it short of the blue line to keep the play alive, Antoine Laganiere picked up a deflected pass directly in front of Hellebuyck, burying it for the 2-0 lead.
The Bulldogs took three shots in each of their first two power plays, includuing the Witek goal. But the good times didn’t last for Yale, as the River Hawks found their legs in the second, scoring twice in 14 seconds to tie the game.
Zack Kamrass took an elbowing call early in the period, and even though Yale got another four shots off on the power play, UML nearly got on the board when Riley Wetmore picked off a slow D-to-D pass and rushed up the ice alone. The captain lost the puck before he got to goalie Jeff Malcolm (16 saves), though, and then lost an edge, crashing into the goaltender instead of putting the puck past him.
Wetmore had more in him, however. With 5:22 to go, just three seconds after after Lowell had come up empty on its first power play of the game (an interference call on Clinton Bourbonais), Derek Arnold fired a shot into a mess of players in front of Malcolm, and the deflected puck wound up at Wetmore’s feet. He swept it into a gaping net for a goal that gave Lowell some hope, and a whole lot of momentum.
Just 14 seconds later, Lowell erased the Yale lead. Colin Wright led a 3-on-2 break up ice, and left a drop pass for Joseph Pendenza along the right wing. Pendenza came around White and ripped a laser beam of a wrist shot past Malcolm to tie the game, setting up the frantic final 20 minutes.
Hellebuyck was also strong in the second, making a huge blocker save with 2:11 to go after Laganiere picked the puck up to Hellebuyck’s left, turned and fired an accurate snap shot.
The third period brought no goals, but it certainly brought a lot of indigestion to the Lowell contingent. Yale outshot the River Hawks 16-3 in the period, and had some good opportunities on an early penalty to Joe Houk. The Bulldogs nearly had the winner with 5:11 to go, when Anthony Day spotted Stu Wilson from behind the net, but the play didn’t connect and UML survived the period.
Hellebuyck made his finest stop of the period with 2:28 to go in regulation when Ryan Obuchowski intercepted a clearing attempt from Greg Amlong, raced in and put a hard backhand on the goaltender, but Hellebuyck positioned himself well and took it in the chest.
The River Hawks looked sluggish throughout the third, as they had in the first, and the second-period surge that could have given them some much-needed momentum instead seemed to sap whatever energy they had left.
“Truthfully, I thought we had a lot more in the tank because I didn't think we skated like we usually can,” Bazin said.
Yale took advantage of that.
“They kind of did what we usually do to other teams,” Pendenza said.
And the River Hawks didn’t look anything like the team that had won 14 of its last 15 games. They put a total of just 18 shots on Jeff Malcolm’s net, including just three in the third period.
“We certainly didn’t make [Malcolm’s] job hard enough in net tonight,” Bazin said.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs did just about everything right. They peppered Hellebuyck, they were strong on the power play, and even when they could have been up against the wall after Lowell’s comeback, they responded. With 2:56 to go in regulation, an icing call put the faceoff in the Yale zone, and the Bulldogs on the ice were at the end of an extended shift. It was an opportunity for Lowell, but a timeout call from Allain took that opportunity away.
That was as close as UML got down the stretch to finding a way past the upstart Bulldogs who, were it not for Notre Dame’s victory in the CCHA title game, wouldn’t have even made the tournament.
The River Hawks season to remember came to an end Thursday night in Pittsburgh. But for Yale, the fun is just beginning, and in two days the Bulldogs have a chance to continue their historic run.