With the help of some late-game heroics from captain Andrew Miller, the Yale Bulldogs made history Thursday night when they earned a 3-2 overtime victory over the UMass-Lowell River Hawks. It will be Yale's first appearance in a national championship game ever and the first time an ECAC team has played for a national title since Colgate in 1990.
"Oh, [I'm] just so proud of our guys," said Yale head coach Keith Allain. "The way they played for the tournament here and the way they came out and started the game, faced a little bit of adversity there in the middle of the second period, but regrouped and kind of just stuck with the plan."
The game started fairly even, with UMass-Lowell having the lion's share of the opportunities early in the game, but by mid-way through the first period, Yale was winning the vast majority of the battles, and by the end of the first period, the Bulldogs had outshot UMass-Lowell 11-5 and was winning by a score of 2-0.
First blood was drawn at the 12:55 marker of the first period, on a powerplay goal from Mitch Witek, who could not have picked a better time to score his first goal of the season. Yale forward Carson Cooper had his initial shot blocked after a give-and-go with Miller. The puck bounced back to Cooper, who then tried a cross ice pass that eventually made its way to Witek, who was jumping into the attack. Witek released the shot and beat UMass-Lowell goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (WPG) under the glove.
Yale then followed up with an even strength goal at 19:08 in the first, off a knock-in rebound by Antoine Laganiere, who snapped a four-game pointless streak.
The River Hawks came back in the second however and scored two goals. The first came at 14:38, when UMass-Lowell forward Riley Wetmore knocked a backhand shot past Yale goalie Jeff Malcolm. The second came just 14 seconds later, when Joseph Pendenza beat Malcolm's glove hand. Despite that offensive outburst in the second period, UMass-Lowell continued to be outplayed for the majority of the game.
"We did have a good 17 seconds," said Wetmore. "We got two goals there. So we knew we could score. But we just didn't bring it. [Yale] played a great game. We were just unfortunate we didn't have our legs today."
Not only did they not have their legs, but the River Hawks appeared to have no answer for the Bulldogs suffocating attack. Through three periods and part of an overtime, Yale managed to outshoot UMass-Lowell 47-18, and attempted a total of 109 shots in the direction of the River Hawks net.
"One thing we preached all year and especially in the playoffs is there are going to be some ups and downs," said Yale defenseman Gus Young. "We just stuck to the game, kept bodies to the net; we kept our discipline, kept our [formations] and we were able to wear them down and get going in the third and overtime."
The game would not have been nearly as close if not for the brilliant goaltending of Hellebuyck, who gave his team a chance to win despite being outplayed for the bulk of the game. The freshman goaltender came into the game riding a seven game win streak that included two shutouts. Despite the loss, he finished with a .936 save percentage and 44 saves. The goaltender's monumental effort would not be enough however.
Almost seven minutes into the overtime period, Miller would seal the victory for Yale. He picked up a clearing pass off the boards from Cooper and drove to the net wide around UMass-Lowell defenseman Greg Amlong. Miller would then dodge a stick check from Amlong, deke to his backhand, and slide the puck between the legs of Hellebuyck.
"It was a good bouncing puck," said Miller. "I think we stopped them in transition a bit, came across, and I think it caught a defenseman flat footed. They have a really good goaltender, and he played a really good game… it's a great team goal, I think."
The Bulldogs generated non-stop pressure in the neutral zone, and even when they were not creating offensive opportunities, they were stifling UMass-Lowell, and forcing them to the perimeter. The River Hawks made numerous adjustments throughout the game, though none of them appeared to make any difference.
"Well, first and foremost, they have excellent team speed, and they post a lot of guys in the neutral zone," explained UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. "Usually we can adjust to that; we have in the last couple of weeks against teams that are very similar. However, we had no response. It was just one of those games that the magic certainly wasn't there tonight in terms of skating and being able to adjust on the fly. You know, you can't say anything but tip your hat to the Yale hockey club. They played an excellent hockey game, and they were able to take the play to us."
Coach Allain acknowledged, that while the game was close, he never doubted Yale would win, as long as they continued to put pressure on the net.
"Line after line, [defensive] pair after [defensive] pair, I thought we just came after Lowell, [and] came after Lowell, and eventually Andrew was able to get the game winner there in overtime. And make no mistake about it, Lowell is a great and worthy opponent, and that's what makes the win so special for us."