PITTSBURGH — Three Saturdays ago, Quinnipiac and Yale faced one another in the ECAC Hockey consolation game. The stands in Atlantic City were nearly bare.
Yale could have saved itself the trouble of waiting for the result of the CCHA title game by guaranteeing itself an NCAA tournament spot with a win, but Quinnipiac had little motivation to be on the ice.
2013 NCAA Frozen Four
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“No one likes to play a consolation game,” Yale coach Keith Allain said.
Every college player, though, would give anything to play for a national title.
Quinnipiac won that consolation game 3-0, the third win for the Bobcats against Yale this season. Saturday, though, everyone in the Bobcats locker room expects to see a very different Yale team.
“I think they’re playing on a different level of hockey right now,” Quinnipiac defenseman Zach Currie said. “They’ve won some impressive games including last night, but I think our approach doesn’t change.
“We’ve played the same way all year. We’ve played some very good lines, some very good players and some very good teams. We play our hockey. We play the way we want to play, and that’s how we’re going to take care of that.”
“I think our record so far against them kind of goes out the window in a game like this,” senior forward Jeremy Langlois said. “I think more than anything, just playing a team so many times, you kind of get the feel of what they do well and what we do well.”
Over the past three games of the NCAA tournament, what Yale has done very well is attack. They’ve successfully found a transition game that put plenty of pressure on the defenses of Minnesota, North Dakota and Massachusetts-Lowell, forcing turnovers that have led to quality scoring opportunities.
Coach Rand Pecknold will look to rely upon the experience of his defensemen to remain composed against this aggressive Bulldogs team.
“They’re veterans,” Pecknold said of a defensive corps that features four seniors, one junior and one sophomore. “Ton of game experience with those seniors, and you can’t substitute for game savvy. They deal with adversity well.”
Yale has played throughout the national tournament, but the biggest challenge might be finding a way to beat its crosstown rival.
The aforementioned 0-fer against the Bobcats this season includes 6-2 and 4-1 losses before the 3-0 loss in Atlantic City. In the two regular season games, goaltender Jeff Malcolm didn’t play, nursing an injury suffered against Princeton on Feb. 1.
Thus far in the tournament, Malcolm has been the backbone for the Bulldogs. Against Minnesota, he bent but didn’t break, facing a barrage of shots in the third period where Yale surrendered a 2-0 lead only to have Yale’s top line score nine seconds into overtime.
A day later, Malcolm made a number of critical saves to keep the deficit 1-0 versus North Dakota before Yale rallied with four late goals.
At the same time, the team in front of Malcolm is playing with ultimate confidence. That confidence is part of a business-as-usual attitude that everyone in the Yale program seems to be focused on right now.
All of Yale’s players along with Allain talked on Friday about continuing to do the little things right. Those were a major part of what was missing when the Bulldogs struggled at times this season. Those same little things have been a major presence for this team in the last three games.
“We’re still formulating our game plan,” Allain said. “But I do think there are some similarities between Lowell and Q-Pac, particularly with the way that they defend. So it’s a work in progress right now.”
That game planning may be a little easier given the knowledge from three previous meetings. But it’s hardly going to feel like any other game.
“Yeah, I think during an NCAA tournament game, first of all, what happened in the regular season in the playoffs doesn’t really matter at this point,” Yale’s Antoine Laganiere said. “It’s just a one and done. It’s a whole new time.”
A factor hardly overlooked is the rivalry these two teams have developed. Though only playing against one another in league play since 2005, these two schools separated by less than eight miles of Whitney Avenue in Connecticut have built what is a healthy and budding rivalry.
Though many may think differently, the players don’t want to admit that will play a factor on Saturday night.
“I think the fact that it’s a rivalry game is irrelevant,” Quinnipiac’s Jordan Samuels-Thomas said. “Right now, both teams are competing for a national championship, and that’s kind of what comes first. Obviously, they are our rivals, but I don’t think anyone’s thinking about that. They’re thinking about winning a national championship.”
Playing against each other back in the Nutmeg State is one thing. But you have to believe that playing with a national title on the line is certain to take this rivalry to a whole different level.