BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — It was billed as the battle of the Bulldogs, and in the end it was the less aggressive dog — at least in terms of banging bodies around the rink — that prevailed.
Minnesota-Duluth placed its opposition, Yale, into a massive hole by capitalizing on power plays generated from undisciplined penalties in the middle period and then held off a late rally to capture the 2011 NCAA East Regional championship, 5-3, at the Webster Bank Arena Saturday night.
The win advances UMD to its fourth Frozen Four and first since 2004. They will face the Northeast Regional champion that will be crowned on Sunday.
The game took a major turn in the middle period when Yale was whistled for seven penalties, most notably a five-minute major and game misconduct to Brian O’Neill for contact to the head. Minnesota-Duluth scored three times with the man advantage and once seconds after a penalty expired to turn a 1-0 advantage through one to a 5-1 lead entering the third, the largest deficit Yale faced all season.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin felt not only capitalizing on the power plays was a major key, but so, too, was his team’s ability to not be dragged into a game of retaliation and undisciplined penalties.
“We were harping on [staying disciplined] pretty good,” said Sandelin. “[Yale was] getting frustrated with some of the calls. We’ve all been through that as a player and coach. We felt that we could stay out of the stuff and take advantage of them getting immediately frustrated with those things.”
The fact that Yale was in a 5-1 hole heading to the third wasn’t just about penalties, it was also a factor of not cashing in early in the game when they had all sorts of momentum.
Yale had ample opportunities in the opening period to get on the scoreboard, particularly during a five-on-three power play midway through. Duluth, though, limited Yale’s quality chances and Yale shot in the foot, twice missing open nets.
It was a Yale power play late in the period that led to the game’s opening goal, though it was UMD that stuck short-handed when Mike Connolly buried a pass from Justin Fontaine at 18:00, just 30 seconds after Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Kenny Reiter, who finished with 30 saves and the Most Outstanding Player award, stonewalled Yale’s Broc Little with a left pad save on the doorstep.
Immediately after the UMD goal, Little again had another great chance, breaking in alone with a short-handed bid of his own, only to have Reiter stop him again.
In the second, things quickly came unglued for Yale. Seconds after killing a five-on-three, UMD extended its lead as Wade Bergman’s shot from the left point deflected off of a Yale defender and handcuffed Rondeau.
At 9:07, Yale’s Chris Cahill was whistled for roughing the goaltender, giving an extra shove to Reiter as he lost his footing heading toward the next. Eighteen seconds later, Jack Connolly scored his 17th goal of the season, sniping a shot high short side on Yale netminder Ryan Rondeau (16 saves).
Yale brought the near-capacity crowd to life when O’Neill one-timed a pass on the power play past Reiter 11:30. But eight seconds later, O’Neill went from hero to goat.
An over-exuberant hit at center ice by the junior winger was ruled a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head.
Yale coach Keith Allain, who has led his team to the regional final in back-to-back seasons, hardly seemed in agreement with the officials after the game, though carefully dodged saying that directly.
“Look at the tape and tell me what you think,” Allain said when asked about the play. When one writer quipped that it didn’t appear there was contact to the head, Allain followed: “Write that. They gave us a five-minute penalty and took our best player out of the game.”
It took just 14 seconds for Mike Seidel to swipe home a loose puck at the left faceoff circle for the 4-1 lead. Then after Yale’s Nick Jaskowiak was sent off for boarding, Justin Fontaine blasted home yet another goal from nearly the exact same spot as Seidel.
Yale tried its best to mount a rally in the third. After replacing Rondeau with Nick Maricic (five saves) to begin the frame, Little and Denny Kearney both notched power play goals, but that couldn’t make up for the hole that was dug in the penalty-filled second period.
It’s a difficult ending for the Eli, who completed the best year in the school’s history at 28-7-1. The loss also extends the ECAC drought at the Frozen Four, having not placed a team onto college hockey’s biggest stage since Cornell in 2003. No ECAC team has won a national title since Harvard in 1989.
Minnesota-Duluth (24-10-6) on the other hand, will get to skate for a national championship as close to home as possible in St. Paul, Minn., beginning on April 7. Sandelin was noticeably excited to have emerged from a region where few gave them a chance, having to face both the ECAC regular season champ in Union and the league’s playoff champ and overall tournament top seed in the final.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Sandelin said. “We grinded out two wins against two good hockey teams. Coming into the tournament, nobody gave us a lot of credit.
“I think this group is pretty focused. They know [winning the regional] is great but they know this isn’t it. We’re going there to win.”
Video: Minnesota-Duluth news conference:
Video: Yale news conference: