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Frozen Four face-off

(Kai Takahashi)

(Kai Takahashi)

Last fall was a difficult time to be a hockey fan at Yale.  We had lukewarm hopes about a Yale team that was trying to rebound after an underwhelming year. Meanwhile, negotiations stalled between the National Hockey League’s owners and players, as they struggled to form a new collective bargaining agreement, and the 2012-2013 pro season was doubtful.

But suddenly in January, the NHL was back, and more importantly, so was the Bulldogs men’s hockey team. The team surpassed their own performance leading up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, defeating teams from two of the most storied college hockey programs in the nation’s history—the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux—in one weekend.

However improbable their run has been, the team is hardly surprised. “It’s a daunting task to play two really good teams and win,” said Andrew Miller, BR ’13, team captain. “But to be the best you have to beat the best.” “We were aware that we were being someone written off to lose to Minnesota,” added Kenny Agostino, ES ’14, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, “but we went in with the intention of winning the regional, regardless of the opponent, and that’s what we did.”

By defeating these juggernauts, Yale’s men’s hockey team has made it to the Frozen Four for the first time in six decades. The Bulldogs are among the bracket-busting sleeper teams (for everyone that filled out a hockey bracket) that become famous and garner national media attention for improbable NCAA tournament runs. Now, the team must cope with its success.

At the beginning, middle, and near-end of the season, the Bulldogs were not expected to do much. In the final weekend before the NCAAs, the Bulldogs were outscored by a total of 8-0 in two consecutive losses. Still, they  managed to slip into the NCAA tournament as a 15th seed, the last seed in the West. Ranked so low, Yale’s path to the Frozen Four put them through games with five- and seven-time NCAA champions Minnesota and North Dakota, respectively, the tournament’s second and seventh overall seeds.

In their first game, the Bulldogs forced overtime against the Gophers. Only nine seconds after the announcer insisted that “Minnesota definitely has the energy” and that Yale should “sit back,” Agostino stole the puck from the Minnesotan defender and passed to Jesse Root, ES ’14, for a “one-timer” past the goalie. It was sudden-death. The game ended.

Against six-seeded North Dakota—with only 4:56 to play, and losing by a goal—Yale senior Josh Balch, SY ’13, scored his third goal of the season to tie it. But instead of forcing another overtime, the floodgates were opened. By the end of the game the score was 4-1, and the Elis were punching their ticket to Pittsburgh.

All year, and especially against difficult opponents, Yale has had success in overtime and in crunch time. “Our team’s success in overtime,” Agostino said, “is certainly a tribute to our mental toughness and conditioning.” Balch agrees: “We have a resilient hockey team that never gives up and works even harder when faced with adversity,” he said.

Still, regular followers of the team are more surprised by the team’s recent expression of a resilient character. Max Valenstein, DC ’13, and Adlon Adams, DC ’15, the team’s commentators on Yale All-Access (the online network that broadcasts and archives Yale Athletics’ home games), have had a chance to follow the team closely over the course of a roller-coaster season. Valenstein commented that the team is “seemingly bipolar,” and that this year the Bulldogs have wilted when momentum in games started to move away from them. He pointed to a Fri., Dec. 7 home game against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in which a 1-0 Eli lead turned into a 6-1 loss. But last weekend was entirely different. “I don’t know where that mental maturity came from,” he said.

What else besides a newly inspired moxie has made the Bulldogs successful? A shift in strategy on the ice seems to have helped: “Forecheck, forecheck, forecheck,” Valenstein said to that question. “Yale wins when their forecheck is aggressive and quick.” The forecheck is the feature of the game in which the offense pressures the other team in their zone (much like basketball’s “press”) to force a turnover. The steal and consequent goal created by Agostino nine seconds into overtime against the Gophers is “Exhibit A.”

The aggressive style is still only a piece of the winning formula. In their two recent victories, the Bulldogs also had players who don’t normally make offensive contributions fill out the score sheet. “You need depth to win NCAA hockey games,” Miller said.

Miller himself has played a fundamental role in the team’s success: the Ivy League player of the year, he is one assist shy from tying the all-time Yale assist record. “Miller has done a great job in leading and preparing our team for each game,” Balch said.

In any case, their date with third-overall UMass-Lowell is set, for Thurs., Apr. 11. If they continue their streak till then, a meeting with hometown rival, Quinnipiac University—the top-ranked team that has dominated the other side of the bracket—seems imminent in the National Championship. The two teams have already played twice this year; Yale loss both games. However, a Yale-Quinnipiac final, or “The Battle for New Haven” (anti-climactically located in Pittsburgh), would be anyone’s guess. Even so, the Bulldogs are focused on the next game alone. “They are a good team, but they aren’t even on our radar,” Miller said of Quinnipiac.

Indeed, in their approach to the tournament, as with their approach to their own hockey careers, none of the Bulldogs are looking beyond the task at hand. Some players have aspirations to play professionally beyond Yale, in the NHL. Among them is Agostino, leading the team in both goals and assists, and the author of the overtime heroics against Minnesota. He was picked in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same Penguins who now sit atop the NHL’s Eastern Conference, giving him the opportunity to play in that program after any season.

But on Thurs., Mar. 28, as Yale prepared to play Minnesota, Agostino was one of two college players traded to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Jarome Iginla, who is widely considered to be among the best NHL players of all time. Still, Agostino’s professional plans are secondary to the Bulldogs’ run in the NCAA tournament. “It was certainly an honor to be a part of a trade with such a legendary and well-respected player as Iginla,” he said. “However, my focus right now is on winning a National Championship, which starts with our team having a great game against [UMass] Lowell.”

With only a few top recruits now, this national exposure will certainly help the program set up a future of continued success. If it can offer superior academics along with a stellar Division I hockey team, Adams says that with this talent—and the stronger out-of-conference opponents with whom Yale could then schedule games—the Bulldogs may be able to cement a place within the top echelon of college hockey.

“I don’t know what will come of Yale being in the Frozen Four in terms of being put more on the hockey map,” says Agostino, maintaining the “game-by-game” approach, “but I know we are all very excited about the opportunity and are now focused on playing Lowell next Thursday.”

Chris Coffman, BK ’16, and a Minnesota native himself, likewise expected the Bulldogs to fall short of the Gophers. “But with a win like that,” he said, “I think people will take the name ‘Yale Hockey’ a bit more seriously.”

As Coffman and a few others make the trek to Pittsburgh to support the Bulldogs in person, the Yale community will look on with newfound enthusiasm toward a program trying to take its next big step.