And to think they almost didn't make the field.
The last school to gain a berth in this year's NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Tournament, the Yale University Bulldogs are one of the last teams standing following a dramatic 3-2 national semifinal victory over third-ranked UMass Lowell in overtime on Thursday at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Yale will now face Connecticut and Eastern College Athletic Conference rival Quinnipiac, a 4-1 winner over St. Cloud State in the late semifinal, on Saturday night for the national title. It will be the first NCAA championship game appearance for both the Bulldogs and the Bobcats.
Senior captain Andrew Miller corralled a bouncing puck at the UML blue line, stepped outside a defender and ultimately slipped a backhander between the pads of River Hawks netminder Connor Hellebuyck just 6:59 into sudden death to lift Yale (21-12-3 overall) to its third straight NCAA tournament victory this year over a ranked opponent.
“That’s probably the biggest goal in the history of Yale hockey,” said Yale coach Keith Allain. himself a former Bulldog goaltender, at USCHO.com afterward. “Andrew has been a great player for us all four years. But he’s made a remarkable transformation into a leadership role this year.”
Yet, if Michigan had won the CCHA title game over Notre Dame and thus earned an at-large NCAA bid, Yale would have been sitting home the last few weeks. When Michigan lost, Yale made the field—and it's been making the most of that chance ever since.
The Bulldogs weren't exactly firing on all cylinders entering the nationals. After a 12-9-1 mark in Eastern College Athletic Conference play, and a third-place regular-season finish, they dispatched St. Lawrence in a best-of three ECAC quarterfinal series. At the ECAC Championships in Atlantic City, they didn't even score a goal, losing 5-0 to Union in the semifinals and then 3-0 to Quinnipiac in the consolation game.
It's been a bit of an arduous road for Yale, at least on the national level.
Three years ago, Yale edged North Dakota in the first round of NCAA Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., but lost to eventual NCAA champion Boston College in the regional final. Two years ago, Yale was ranked first in the nation, but fell to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA East Regional final in Bridgeport, Conn., after outlasting Air Force in overtime. Last year, Yale finished 16-16-3 overall and missed out on the NCAAs for the first time since 2008.
Given new life after Michigan fell in the 2013 CCHA title game on March 24, the Bulldogs went westward and defeated both No. 2 Minnesota and No. 7 North Dakota two weeks ago at the NCAA West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. Pittsburgh native Jesse Root connected just nine seconds into overtime against the Golden Gophers in a 3-2 win, and Yale then scored four times in the final eight minutes of regulation to oust UND 4-1.
Against UMass Lowell on Thursday, Mitch Witek and Antoine Laganiere staked Yale to a 2-0 lead after the first period before UML tied the contest on second-period scores just 14 seconds apart by Riley Wetmore and Joseph Pendenza.
It stayed that way even though Yale outshot UML16-3 in the final 20 minutes of regulation and 6-0 in the extra session before Miller struck.
Jeff Malcolm finished with 16 saves for Yale, which outshot the River Hawks 47-18 overall. In three NCAA tournament games, the senior has stopped 66 of 71 shots and is now 19-6-2 on the season.
Saturday's NCAA title game with Quinnipiac will take place at 7 p.m. (ESPN). Quinnipiac defeated Yale in all three meetings this year. The Bulldogs will be determined not to let the Bobcats raise that streak to four, not with the run they've had so far.
"It’s pretty unbelievable," said Yale forward Carson Cooper, who had two assists versus UML, to the New Haven Register. "Everyone kind of doubted us, touting us as the underdogs. We’re fine with that."
At least for one more night.