The road never traveled: Yale completes unparalled title run

No road to a national championship is easy, but none ranks as difficult as the one Yale just traversed to become the 2013 NCAA champions. The Bulldogs defeated an unprecedented three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2.

At the start of the four-game journey, little reason for optimism existed.

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After losing eight of their last 14 games — including an ignominious shutout weekend in which they fell 5-0 to Union in the ECAC Hockey semifinal and then 3-0 to Quinnipiac in the consolation game — the Bulldogs had to wait for the final conference tournament game in the country to find out if they’d make the NCAA tournament or not.

If Michigan defeated Notre Dame, Yale’s season would be over. But if the Irish prevailed, the Bulldogs would have life.

The Irish came through.

“We were definitely big fans [of Notre Dame] that day,” Gus Young said. “But once we knew we were in, we knew we belonged, and if we worked hard we’d be able to do something great.”

Most observers had their doubts, and not just because of the team’s stumbles entering the tournament. In the first round, Yale would face the No. 2 team in the country, Minnesota. The Gophers roster was loaded with NHL prospects.

And if somehow the planets aligned and the stumbling Bulldogs toppled the mighty Gophers, North Dakota loomed. Since the mighty WCHA had put six teams into the tournament, and Minnesota and North Dakota were presumably their finest as the two highest seeds, the odds appeared prohibitive.

“You’ve got to take it one step at a time,” Andrew Miller said. “It’s not four games. It’s game one, then game two, game three, and game four. You’ve got to take it a step at a time and a period at a time.”

It was a mantra preached by Yale coach Keith Allain.

“One of the special things about our team, and one of the qualities of all champions, is the great ability to focus,” Allain said. “If we look down the road and say we’re going to have to beat three No. 1s and a No. 2 seed, the task might have seemed daunting.

“But we went into Grand Rapids focused on Minnesota and took care of that job. We focused on North Dakota.

“When you chip away at it one at a time, [it becomes possible]. It took a great deal of effort, but it wasn’t impossible.”

The Bulldogs toppled Minnesota 3-2 in overtime, then exploded with four goals in the final eight minutes of the third period to defeat North Dakota 4-1.

In the Frozen Four semifinal game, Yale faced another No. 1 seed, Massachusetts-Lowell, a team on a 25-3-1 roll. The Bulldogs needed another overtime but continued their trend of late-game dominance, outshooting the River Hawks 23-3 in the third period and overtime to advance to the title game.

“We prided ourselves on being the hardest working team in college hockey,” Young said. “To win the championship, we knew we’d have to be the hardest working team.”

The championship game beckoned, and with it came not only a third No. 1 seed, but the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Quinnipiac. And, oh yes, the Bobcats had beaten Yale five straight times over two years, three this season by a cumulative score of 13-3.

The recipe for putting away the final team in Yale’s Murderer’s Row of opponents was the same as the one that had doomed the previous three.

“We just worried about ourselves,” Young said. “We knew if we stuck to our game plan, we knew we could beat anyone in the country no matter who we were up against.

“So we stuck to our game plan and really focused on ourselves and got it done.”

The Bulldogs won the school’s first national championship, defeating their rivals from just eight miles away in satisfying fashion, 4-0.

“Tonight was our turn,” Allain said. “Our kids were ready, committed, and congratulations to them for having a fine hockey season.”

Yale had taken the proverbial road less traveled, at least the road less traveled successfully, and as it turned out, that made all the difference.