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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- That sound you heard was the collective thud of the No. 1 seeds getting dropped from the top of the bracket in the 2011 NCAA men's hockey championship and sent home to an early spring.
|Yale had high hopes for ending the ECAC's title drought.|
It started on Friday night in St. Louis when defending national champion and West No. 1 Boston College was crushed by Colorado College 8-4.
It continued on Saturday afternoon in Manchester, N.H., when Northeast No. 1 Miami dropped a 3-1 decision to New Hampshire in the Wildcats' second home.
It finished on Saturday evening here at the Webster Bank Arena when overall No. 1 Yale exited the national tournament after a 5-3 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
It makes you wonder what the future holds for the only No. 1 left standing heading into the final day of regional play. Midwest top seed North Dakota will find out on Sunday when it faces Denver in Green Bay (ESPNUHD, 5:30 p.m. ET) with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line -- although a loss to the No. 2 seed Pioneers would hardly be considered an upset.
Make no mistake, the first three early exits weren't created equal.
The Eagles were caught cold by a hot team and in a single-elimination tournament, one bad night equals one quick recipe for a season-ender.
The RedHawks lost a close game that included an empty-netter in what for all intents and purposes was a home game for the home state Wildcats. UNH was the host in Manchester and therefore by current NCAA rules had to play there if it made the tournament. It was clearly a tough draw for Enrico Blasi's club so the result isn't as big of a surprise.
And then there was Yale. This was supposed to be the year for Keith Allain's team. The Bulldogs finished the pre-NCAA season with the fewest losses in the nation, at six. Yale was installed as the top seed in the East Region and got Air Force, the lowest No. 4 seed, as a first-round opponent. The disciplined and methodical Falcons kept Yale in check and it took an overtime goal by Chad Ziegler on Friday night to get the Bulldogs into the regional final.
Most championship-caliber teams survive a tough game during the national tournament and find a way to advance. With the close call seemingly out of their system, the 7,816 mostly blue-clad crowd had high expectations on Saturday night.
That anticipation turned to alarm and was quickly followed by a heavy dose of anger.
UMD (24-10-6) jumped out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period before Yale's combination of speed and pressure resulted in a Brian O'Neill goal to make it 3-1 at 11:30 of the middle frame.
Then another thud took the air out of the building and effectively ended Yale's (28-6-1) season.
Just eight seconds after the goal, with a potential momentum swing on the horizon, O'Neill collided with UMD's Jake Hendrickson near center ice. A penalty was called. CCHA referees Brian Hill and Brian Aaron conferred with each other and decided it was a five-minute major for contact to the head. O'Neill was also given a game misconduct.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Yale's leading scorer (20 goals, 46 points) was done for the night and he exited down the home team tunnel as UMD went on a five-minute power play.
The visiting Bulldogs netted two goals during the major penalty to make it 5-1 and the game was effectively over.
"In hindsight the game was over then," Allain said. "I think we had momentum, they took one of our top players out of the game and put us on the penalty kill for five minutes. That's a huge moment."
|Minnesota-Duluth will be representing the State of Hockey after knocking out Yale.|
Try season-ending moment.
Asked what he thought was the difference in the second period, Yale captain Jimmy Martin said, "They buried their power-play chances." His answer was dripping with disdain over one call in particular.
In all, Yale was whistled for seven penalties (25 minutes) in the middle period, but it was O'Neill's 15 minutes that made the difference.
Who knows, if that questionable call (watch the replay and decide for yourself) is a two-minute minor for charging or interference and UMD doesn't score twice with the man-advantage then maybe we're still playing to decide who goes on to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn.
What we do know is the Yale loss continues the ECAC's futility (in this case maybe it's bad luck) in the NCAA tournament.
The conference hasn't had a team in the Frozen Four since Cornell in 2003 and no ECAC team has won a national title since Harvard in 1989. In that same time frame, the CCHA has five national titles and Hockey East has earned seven. But the conference with the most hardware since 1990 is the WCHA with nine titles.
Minnesota-Duluth doesn't own one of those titles.
But as the Bulldogs gathered in their tunnel before the game, one of the players shouted "Why not?!" As in why can't we beat the No. 1 overall seed and keep our season going?
UMD, which heads back to Frozen Four for the fourth time in school history and the first since 2004, is about to find out when it faces the winner of Sunday's Northeast Regional final between Notre Dame and UNH on April 7.
And the Bulldogs' presence at the Xcel Energy Center means the self-proclaimed State of Hockey will have a home state entry at next month's event.
The emotional high for UMD will likely last for the nearly two weeks between winning the regional final and the start of the Frozen Four.
The other end of the emotional spectrum -- the sudden and stark reality of a season, and in some cases careers, ending -- was clearly represented by the red eyes in the other dressing room.
One thing is for certain: Spring arrived too early for too many teams that carried the burden of being a No. 1 seed into this NCAA hockey tournament. Stay tuned to see if a final one falls on Sunday afternoon.David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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