After trouncing Cornell 6--0 last Saturday to capture its second ECAC tournament championship in three years, Yale enters this weekend's NCAA playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in school history. Considering the long legacy of hockey in New Haven—Yalies take credit for introducing the game to the U.S. in 1896—the feat is as overdue as it is surprising. But despite the Bulldogs' place at the top of college hockey's tournament bracket, they remain a long shot in many eyes to win a national championship at the Frozen Four next weekend in St. Paul.
How can a team that boasts the nation's top offense (4.39 goals per game) and scoring defense (1.94 GAA) be anything but a favorite to win it all? "There's this pecking order in college hockey in some of these power conferences, and we're not in that group right now," coach Keith Allain says. "Until we win it, people won't expect us to."
The skeptics will note that Yale (27-6-1) played just six games against ranked opponents this season (going 4--2) and that the team does not have a Hobey Baker finalist on its roster (box). Nor do the Bulldogs have any NHL draft picks among their upperclassmen. Also weighing heavily against Yale is the fact that it is a member of the East Coast Athletic Conference—EZAC, as it's known derisively in some hockey circles—which last produced a national champion in 1989, when Harvard defeated Minnesota. Teams from the WCHA and Hockey East, on the other hand, have won nine of the last 10 Frozen Four titles and own eight of this year's 16 tournament berths.
The story is similar for Union College, another ECAC member team, which earned its first NCAA tournament berth on Sunday. The Dutchmen (26-9-4) won more regular-season games than any other team in the league this season but encouraged the conference's doubters by falling to last-place Colgate in the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament.
There's much to like about the Bulldogs, with their up-tempo game and lightning-quick transition—they scored three goals in less than seven minutes of the second period on Saturday night. Yale is led by sophomore forward Andrew Miller, the team's top scorer with 43 points, and junior forward Brian O'Neill, with 18 goals. What the Bulldogs lack in size and finesse, they make up for in speed and dogged persistence at both ends of the ice. Entering this weekend's first round game against 16th-seeded Air Force, senior goalie Ryan Rondeau is riding a three-game shutout streak that is as much a testament to the defensive corps protecting him as it is to the senior's sound play in net.
The conventional wisdom might have many picking traditional power Boston College to win it all this spring. But Yale has been underestimated before. "Last year against [No. 2] North Dakota, I think everyone thought they were going to roll over us," says senior forward Denny Kearney of the Bulldogs' 3--2 first-round upset victory in 2010. "They may not have thought we were as good as we were, and it ended up working in our favor."
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The leading contender among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top player in college hockey, is North Dakota's Matt Frattin, a senior forward out of Edmonton. The odds-on favorite for the award since the season began, Frattin, a 2007 fourth-round pick of the Maple Leafs, leads the nation with 35 goals thanks to a booming, NHL-caliber slap shot. His top rival for hockey's version of the Heisman is Miami (Ohio) forward Andy Miele. Though undersized (at just 5'8" and 175 pounds) and undrafted, Miele's superior vision and smooth hands helped make him the CCHA player of the year—as did his 47 assists and 71 points, both tops in Division I. The winner will be announced at the Frozen Four on April 8.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (RONDEAU)
Y FRONT Aided by a tenacious defense, goaltender Rondeau made 22 saves against Cornell to extend his shutout streak to three games.
JOHN MERSITS/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (MIELE)