March 26, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A Cruel Twist of Fate

Yale's Magical Season Comes Unraveled in 2nd Period

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Eight seconds.

In a span of 8 seconds, Yale's Brian O'Neill — all season the most dynamic offensive player on the Bulldogs — went from getting his team back in the game, to getting kicked out of the game.

It was a cruel twist of fate for a team, and a player, with such monumental aspirations.

The goal cut Minnesota-Duluth's lead to 3-1. The subsequent 5-minute major power play increased UMD's lead to 5-1. Yale could not recover.

In the end, the Ivy League school that turned so many doubters into believers — the one that went from ECAC also-rans to making the NCAAs in three consecutive seasons — came up one game short of the Frozen Four once again. A 5-3 final in front of a Yale-friendly crowd, and a stinging defeat to end the best season in the program's long history.

"It's not the way we pictured our season ending," Yale senior Denny Kearney said.

O'Neill had just finished putting in a one-timer on a power play, his 20th goal of the season. Eight seconds later, pumped up, O'Neill barreled over UMD forward Jake Hendrickson at center ice. The officials called it a contact to the head penalty, an automatic 5-minute major and a game misconduct.

No one wanted to admit it at the time, but the game was over right then.

"In hindsight the game was over then," Yale coach Keith Allain admitted afterward. "We don't feel that way in the middle of the game, because we're working our tails off to the final buzzer. But if you look back, I think they definitely got the momentum and took one of our top players out of the game."

Yale, of course, could've handled the earlier parts of the game better, too, and not been in such a precarious position.

The Elis came storming out, much like ECAC bretheren Union did to Duluth a night earlier. But like Union, Yale could not cash in on numerous opportunities. Instead, it allowed a shorthanded goal to UMD star forward Mike Connolly.

"I was actually pleased with the way we played the first period even though we were down," Allain said. "I really liked that game and what we were trying to establish. I thought the game got taken away from us a bit in the second period."

Allain was perhaps making a veiled reference to the officiating. But some mistakes didn't help. Ryan Rondeau, so strong all year, turned in a game that many feared would come all along. The second goal for Duluth was a soft one, and, as it turned out, the only even-strength goal of the game for either team. Another power play led to Duluth's third goal, and it looked bleak for Yale.

But Yale, as it showed in last year's NCAAs and throughout this season, can pour it on with the best of them. And when O'Neill scored his goal, there was a palpable buzz. Until 8 seconds later.

The call was controversial, particularly among Yale partisans.

"I thought we had the momentum and then they gave Brian a 5-minute penalty and kicked him out of the game," Allain said. "Look at the tape, tell me what you think."

Yale was demonstrably flustered for a few minutes after that, and that couldn't have come at a worse time. The Elis took another penalty, creating a 5-on-3, and UMD scored an easy goal on that. Then Duluth added another during the remaining major power play, just for good measure.

"It looked like they were getting frustrated with some of the calls," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "I think we've all been through that as a player and coach. But we just felt if we could stay out of that stuff and take advantage of them getting frustrated — you know, it's an emotional game. It's do or die. You have a lot of emotions running through you both ways."

Allain replaced Rondeau with Nick Maricic for the third period.

"Ryan has been our best player all year long," Allain said. "I didn't think it was going to be his night, and I felt a change would help us."

Of course, the players weren't thinking of packing it in. And Yale scored two power-play goals in the third period to try to make a game of it.

"I don't think we ever felt we were out of it," Yale senior defenseman Jimmy Martin said. "There was no quit in our guys. We battled, and we got a few — we didn't get as many as we needed.

"Brian is a great player for our team, so any time you lose one of your top players it's going to hurt. But our team kept battling regardless of what was going on."

The post-game scene around the Yale locker room was as downcast as you'll ever see after such a loss. No matter how good a job Allain has done building this program, it's not a program that's going to get shots at the Frozen Four every year, like some other perennial contenders. This team had huge aspirations — unthinkable aspirations just a few years ago — legitimate aspirations. There was a palpable feeling that the program's, and the conference's, best shot in a while, had slipped through the Elis' fingers.

"You can do things right every day, and still not get there," Allain said.

Nine seniors leave, including Martin, Kearney, Broc Little and Chris Cahill — key cogs in Yale's run.

"It's going to be very difficult to see them go," Allain said. "I don't think I'm prepared to eulogize them properly tonight, but it's more than just the numbers — it's their personaliyy and the life they gave to Yale hockey, and what they mean to me personally. It's an extremely special group."

Said Kearney, "It's been an honor to play for the university. And to have such a great hockey tradition, it's an honor to be part of that now."

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