BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — When Minnesota Duluth says its victory in the NCAA East Region was special, the Bulldogs aren’t kidding.
UMD blanked the nation’s top power play in Friday’s semifinals, then allowed no even-strength goals to the nation’s top offense in Saturday’s finals as the third-seed Bulldogs stunned top-seed and third-ranked Yale, 5-3.
“This is pretty exciting,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I thought coming into this tournament nobody gave us a lot of credit. Our guys showed a lot of resiliency through this tournament. I’m glad we got a couple of tough wins against two very good hockey teams.”
UMD’s top line came up big with Mike Connolly (three assists), Jack Connolly (two assists), and Justin Fontaine (one assist) each scoring a goal. Wade Bergman and Mike Seidel also scored.
Minnesota Duluth advances to its first Frozen Four since 2004. ECAC Hockey champ Yale finishes the season with its most wins (28) but not the one it needed to reach its first national semifinal since 1952.
“I’m really excited for our program to have an opportunity to get back to the Frozen Four,” Sandelin said. “It’s been a goal for these guys since last year when we didn’t get in the tournament. We had a couple guys return that could have left. I think that says a lot about them, and they’re going to get that opportunity.”
A wild second period turned this contest. UMD scored a couple early goals for a 3-0 lead and was ready to run away with game when Yale’s Brian O’Neill struck for a power play goal at 11:30.
A pro-Yale crowd of 7,816 at the Arena at Harbor Yard went into a frenzy, first to celebrate the goal and, eight seconds later, to protest a penalty call that will be talked about for some time.
O’Neill lined up UMD’s Jake Hendrickson and skated the length of the center-ice circle to deliver an open-ice hit that left Hendrickson dazed and on all fours. O’Neill headed to the penalty box initially and then was sent to the locker room when officials called him for a five-minute major for contact to the head and a game misconduct.
ESPNU video replays, though, showed O’Neill hit Hendrickson in the chest, and never made contact to the head.
“That’s a great open-ice hit,” ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said during the broadcast. “I don’t think he targeted the head at all.”
In addition to losing one of its top offensive weapons in O’Neill, Yale also lost all momentum.
UMD put the game away with two goals during the ensuing power play for a 5-1 lead. The fact that Yale drew to within two on a pair of power-play goals in the third only heightened the post-game debate of, “Did he, or didn’t he?”
Naturally, UMD coach Scott Sandelin wasn’t about to offer comment on a call that certainly played to his team’s benefit. Yale coach Keith Allain danced around the subject, not willing to directly call out of the officials but he clearly didn’t like the call and end result.
“The game was taken away from us in the second period,” Allain said in his opening press conference statement. Asked how he saw the call, Allain tersely said, “They gave us a five-minute major.” Pressed further and told the video replay was hardly conclusive of a hit to the head, Allain blurted, “Write that.” When asked what he said to the officials, Allain said, “He said it was clearly contact to the head.”
“I mean, in hindsight, the game was over there,” Allain said. “We had momentum and they take one of our best players out of the game. It’s a huge moment.”
There was a running joke for a while about UMD being so bad on 5-on-3 power plays and on five-minute majors that Sandelin wanted to employ football rules and decline the penalty. He had no such concern after watching his Bulldogs dissect Yale’s penalty kill following O’Neill’s ejection.
Seidel slipped a shot under Ryan Rondeau’s extended right leg just 20 seconds into the major. Jack Connolly started the play with a back-handed pass to Mike Connolly, who fluttered a cross-crease pass to Seidel on the left wing.
Staked to a 5-on-3 power play, Fontaine finished off a tic-tac-toe passing play with Justin Faulk and Mike Connolly, rapping a one-timer into the open left side of the net at the 13:10 mark for a 5-1 lead.
Specialty play won the weekend for Minnesota Duluth. Union was 0-for-9 on the power play and UMD popped in two power-play goals in Friday’s 2-0 semifinal win. On Saturday, UMD scored three power-play goals and Yale’s power play, ranked third in the nation, also had three, but not before going down 3-0.
SEEN AND HEARD AT THE ARENA AT HARBOR YARD
Reit-ing a good story: UMD goalie Kenny Reiter was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the regional. Over two games, Reiter made 62 saves and did not yield a single even-strength goal.
“Kenny was phenomenal,” said teammate Jack Connolly. “He stood on his head all weekend. He made first saves, and second and third saves that you don’t expect a goalie to make. He kept us in both games this weekend. He was the number one star. He played out of his mind and we’re proud of that.”
With the three power-play goals surrendered, Reiter’s goals against average actually ticked up to 2.29. His save percentage is .914.
“Well, Sandy, if we kill all the golfers …”: Not the golfers, the Gophers!
Now that the state of Minnesota has some “home” representation in the Frozen Four, UMD forward Mike Connolly is convinced the Bulldogs have become Minnesota’s team.
“Any time I think we’re ahead of the Gophers is a good thing for us,” Connolly said, referring to the University of Minnesota. “There’s a lot of good teams in Minnesota. We’re fortunate enough to be there and have the support of the state. We’re looking to make the most of it. It’s not often you can get the whole state behind you.”
Well, maybe not all of Minnesota.
A family affair: When UMD returns home to play in the Frozen Four in St. Paul, the Bulldogs will have a huge family audience. UMD has 17 native Minnesotans on the roster.
“It’s right in our backyard,” Wade Bergman said. “It will be nice and close for our fans to get there. It will be nice to have hometown support. It will be nice not to have to travel far.”
Some praise: There was no mistaking the contributions of UMD’s top line of Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly, and Justin Fontaine, who accounted for three goals and nine points.
“They’re as talented a top line as you will see in college hockey,” said Yale senior defenseman Jimmy Martin. “They were a tough matchup for us.”
Change for the better: Yale coach Keith Allain pulled goalie Ryan Rondeau after two periods. He gave up five goals on 21 shots. Nick Maricic was brought in for the third period and kept UMD off the scoreboard, making five saves.
“Ryan has been our player all year long,” Allain said. “It didn’t look like it would be his night. I thought the change would help the team.”
FRIES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG
Oh so close: Yale falls to 0-2 in regional final action. The Bulldogs lost 9-7 to Boston College in the Northeast Region final in 2010.
Home-ice: For anyone who wondered who the home team at the Bridgeport regional was, all you had to do was check out the 20-foot high, inflatable Yale Bulldog chained to a post outside of the ticket office. Local officials had to be thrilled with the turnouts of 7,671 on Friday and 7,816 on Saturday.
Politics vs. Alma mater: Minnesota governor Mark Dayton is a graduate of Yale. Who do you think the guv was rooting for?
INCH’S THREE STARS OF THE NIGHT
3. UMD’s special teams: It was another splendid night for the power play, with three man-up goals giving the Bulldogs five for the weekend.
2. Kenny Reiter, UMD: The Steel City product made 14 of his 30 stops in the opening period, denying Yale an opportunity to gain any momentum.
1. Mike Connolly, UMD: Connolly provided a big boost to his team, converting a 2-on-1 break while playing short-handed and giving UMD a 1-0 lead late in the first period. He would later add a hat trick of assists, providing helpers on goals by Jack Connolly, Mike Seidel, and Justin Fontaine.
PLUSSES AND MINUSES
There were at least six stoppages during Friday’s action to repair loose glass in the corner to the left of the player benches. The work crews must have done a good job with their wrenches because there were no needs for repairs on Saturday.
The use of video review to determine goal scoring is a great idea, although the on-ice officials have to be a bit more expedient in making a decision. Another good use might be review of some penalty calls, whether by an on-ice or off-ice official. Yale’s Brian O’Neill was ejected for a supposed hit to the head of UMD’s Jake Hendrickson on a good open-ice hit. The replays clearly showed O’Neill never got higher than Hendrickson’s chest; of course, the referees would have no out except to charge O’Neill with perhaps a charging call, but two minutes is better than five on a major call. O’Neill’s ejection took away a major weapon for Yale and took the steam out of a Yale-dominated crowd.
It’s bad enough most NBA arenas have resorted to playing ear-splitting music and noise effects throughout action. At least in hockey rinks the noise is limited to breaks in action. However, sitting in the rinks during down time has become a ready made headache, with blaring music and repetitive NCAA promotion videos. Give some rest for the ears, folks.
NCAA ALL-EAST REGIONAL TEAM
F—Jack Connolly, Minnesota Duluth
F—Mike Connolly, Minnesota Duluth
F—Chad Ziegler, Yale
D—Justin Faulk, Minnesota Duluth
D—Nick Jaskowiak, Yale
G—Kenny Reiter, Minnesota Duluth
Most Outstanding Player—Reiter
Minnesota Duluth will make its fourth trip to the Frozen Four and first since 2004. The Bulldogs will face the winner of Sunday’s New Hampshire-Notre Dame game.