Yale right wing Andrew Miller (17) slips the puck between the legs of UMass Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck in front of defenseman Chad Ruhwedel for the winning goal during overtime Thursday.
PITTSBURGH — The home rinks for Quinnipiac and Yale lay less than 10 miles apart, linked by a small stretch of Connecticut highway.
It might as well be a chasm.
The two schools who will meet for the NCAA hockey championship on Saturday took very different paths to the brink of history.
Yale is the oldest college hockey program in the country. The Bulldogs hosted their first game in 1896 — more than three decades before Quinnipiac was even founded — and play at 58-year-old Ignalls Rink, dubbed “The Yale Whale.” The players answer questions about how they balance academics and athletics at one of the nation’s most demanding universities and what their non-hockey future holds.
The questions fielded by the Bobcats are different, ranging from how to pronounce the school’s mouthful of a name to if they’d even heard of Quinnipiac before coach Rand Pecknold called offering a chance at finishing the job he started when he took the post 19 years ago. The Bobcats didn’t even join Division I until 1998. But they play in sparkling High Point Solutions Arena, a $52-million palace that served as a shot across the bow to the rest of the teams in the ECAC that Quinnipiac is serious about turning into a national power.
The bruising, explosive Bobcats (30-7-5) are the top seed while Yale (21-12-3) is the scrappy underdog searching to fill a trophy case that’s largely empty — especially for a team that’s been playing since Grover Cleveland was president.
Quinnipiac overwhelmed St. Cloud State early in a 4-1 victory in the semifinals on Thursday while the Bulldogs needed 67 minutes and 47 shots to get past UMass Lowell 3-2 in overtime to advance to its first national title game.
Yet for all their confidence after rolling over Yale in each of the three previous meetings this season by a combined score of 13-3, the Bobcats insist they are taking nothing for granted.
“The Yale team that we’re going to face is completely different than the team we played earlier in the year,” forward Jordan Thomas-Samuels said. “They’re clicking on all cylinders at the right time, from goaltending to defense and offense. So I think our record against them doesn’t matter.”
Pecknold says his club was “lucky” to beat the Bulldogs 3-0 three weeks ago in the third-place game of the ECAC tournament. Both teams were coming off emotionally draining losses in the league semifinals and with nothing to play for, the hockey wasn’t compelling.
“I don’t think there was much life for either team,” Yale coach Keith Allain said.
How quickly things have changed for two schools that will provide the much-maligned ECAC with its first national title since Harvard won it all in 1989. For years the ECAC has served as hockey’s version of the Big East in college football. Sure, there have been good teams, but not great ones.
Not until now.
“We take hits every now and again,” Pecknold said. “That’s what people want to do, you know. But it’s tough to put us down this year. We’ve got two teams in the national championship game.”
And they’ve even got Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy in on the act. The governor called his state the “center of the college hockey universe” even if Yale and Quinnipiac don’t exactly work in the same orbit.
The Bobcats are built around goaltender Eric Hartzell — a Hobey Baker Award Finalist — and a defensive core of upper classmen that can put up a sometimes impenetrable wall. They pushed around St. Cloud State for long stretches in the semifinals, scoring three goals in the game’s first 12 minutes then clamping down on one of the most explosive teams in the country.
Yale is a counterpuncher. The Bulldogs swarmed Lowell, tilting the ice with their deft passing and aggression. Senior forward Andrew Miller netted the game-winner 6:59 into overtime with a dazzling move around two Lowell defenders before slipping the puck between the legs of River Hawks goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Such ample room to maneuver figures to be difficult to come by against Quinnipiac. Yale scored twice in the first seven minutes of the first meeting between the two schools on Feb 2. The ensuing 173 minutes have seen the Bulldogs solve Hartzell just once.
“We’re really good at our game, and we need to stay the course,” Pecknold said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We could play the Montreal Canadiens ... and we’re going to play the same way.”
So, apparently, will Yale. The Bulldogs consider themselves grinders at heart. They hand out a yellow hockey helmet following each victory to the player deemed most valuable. It went to Miller after the win over Lowell, and he proudly pointed to the stickers slapped across it, including ones indicating the year the school was founded (1701).
The helmet also features the letters “VM” in black. It comes from the Swedish word for “world championship.”
The stakes aren’t quite that high — not technically —but that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like it. What better time for Yale to turn things around. Three solid periods on Saturday night will erase whatever supremacy the upstarts from down the road showed earlier in the year.
“What happened in the regular season in the playoffs doesn’t really matter at this point,” Yale forward Antoine Laganiere said. “It’s just a one and done.
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