BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — For an NCAA game, the teams were about as disparate as could be.
The second-seeded Yale Bulldogs took the ice riding a four-game winning streak, scoring 15 goals on the way to their first-ever ECAC Hockey Championship. Vermont, on the other hand, had dropped to a No.3 seed, in part because of a three-game losing streak in which its stalwart defense surrendered 14 goals.
Suffice to say, this first-round game defied expectations.
Vermont hounded the high-flying Ivy icers at every turn, denying the Bulldogs access to prime scoring regions and making the most of their own opportunities in an impressive 4-1 victory. Juniors Viktor Stalberg and Colin Vock scored for Vermont (21-11-5), as did seniors Wahsontiio Stacey and Corey Carlson. Freshman goaltender Rob Madore made 25 saves for UVM, and the team killed all seven Yale power plays on the night.
“Obviously a big win for our program,” said triumphant coach Kevin Sneddon. “I’m very proud of our team; having not played in a couple of weeks I thought we came out and executed the game plan extremely well tonight.”
Junior winger Chris Cahill scored the only goal of the game for Yale (24-8-2), which also got 22 saves out of senior goalie Alec Richards. The penalty kill was a silver lining for the Elis, killing each of five Catamount power plays.
“The game probably went exactly according to the script that they had written up; we just weren’t able to get on track,” said Yale coach Keith Allain.
The host Bulldogs put themselves behind the eight-ball early, taking a 60-second five-on-three penalty only two and a half minutes into the game. The Bulldogs managed to bail out their ill-mannered miscreants with a number of full-ice clears, and even drew a power play of their own four minutes into play.
Madore and the Catamounts endured some heavy pressure from the Bulldogs’ starting line, which led senior winger Corey Carlson to buckle and trip rookie Brian O’Neill for the game’s second five-on-three only five-and-a-half minutes in.
The Catamounts matched their foes with a short kill of their own, but took another minor in the game’s 10th minute to maintain Yale’s searing momentum.
With Vermont leaning hard on its heels, Yale prevented their foes from gaining the offensive zone for a nearly eight-minute stretch mid-period. Winger Broc Little poached a loose puck at the UVM blue line with 8:30 on the clock, but his breakaway bid was ultimately foiled by backchecking defenseman Patrick Cullity.
Vermont created their own big chance a minute-and-a-half later when the potent line of Stalberg, Brian Roloff and Justin Milo converged on Richards in a three-on-two. Hobey finalist Stalberg fed Roloff for the shot, but Richards punted it away.
The Cats harnessed their sudden burst of energy to score the game’s first goal. Lenes swept up the left wing from high in Vermont’s zone, slowed atop Yale’s faceoff circle, and wristed a low riser that tickled Richards’ left toe on the way to the twine.
The first period ended with the lone inkstain on the scoresheet and Vermont outshooting the white-clad Elis, 8-7.
Vermont quickly doubled its lead 1:50 into the second, as Stalberg made the most of a little luck with a nifty shot.
Bull-rushing sophomore Jimmy Martin in the Yale crease, Stalberg attempted a shot through Martin’s legs, but the defenseman blocked the try with his skate. The puck rebounded right back to Stalberg’s blade, and he didn’t hesitate in whipping it right by both Martin and Richards on the screened shot.
Yale regained its composure as the period wore on, culminating in a power-play groaner with five minutes to go. Winger Denny Kearney strode toward the net while the Bulldogs held the zone and dished a pass down low to Little on the far side. The second-year striker zipped the puck back across Madore’s net to Sean Backman, but the high-scoring sniper from Cos Cob, Conn. couldn’t put enough lumber to the rubber to drive it home.
“I think the key moment in the game tonight was the five-on-three kill,” Sneddon said, echoing similar comments from Allain. “The penalty kill hasn’t been, statistically, a huge asset to us all year, but to kill off two five-on-threes, especially the second one, being a lengthy one, and then to come back and score a couple minutes later, I think that was kind of the turning point for our game tonight.”
The Green and Gold effectively sealed the deal with 59 seconds left on the clock when an Eli turnover ended up in the back of Richards’ net. Vermont defender Dan Lawson intercepted the offensive-zone floater and crossed it to Wahsontiio Stacey, who reversed it upstream to Vock. The Detroit native blasted it by the besieged backstop for the 3-0 lead.
After two periods, Vermont had outshot the favored Bulldogs by a count of 20-16 and successfully snuffed a half-dozen incurred penalties.
“I thought our penalty kill fueled our energy tonight, I really do,” said Sneddon. “I think our guys saw guys blocking shots, both teams, 19 blocked shots, if the statistics are correct. That’s a lot of guys sacrificing to keep their seasons alive.”
Vermont held off the downtrodden ‘Dogs for much of the final period, adding Carlson’s seventh of the season with 3:30 to play. Cahill broke Madore’s shutout bid at 18:15 of the third, giving the most devoted Blue fans one last celebration.
“I told our guys in the locker room, that was probably our best game of the year,” said Sneddon. “The defensive intensity, the puck battles we won, the back pressure, I think we closed gaps on both sides of the puck tonight and that made it difficult for Yale to create offense, and that’s their game. You obviously don’t like giving one up with under two minutes left, but that’s as complete an effort as we’ve had this year.”
Vermont advances to a Saturday quarterfinal date with bracket-busting Air Force, which upset regional top seed Michigan 2-0 in Friday’s early game. The Catamounts are seeking their second Frozen Four appearance in their first NCAA tournament since the spring of 1997, while the Elis bowed out of their third-ever tournament and their first in 11 years.