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PITTSBURGH -- For all four teams involved in Thursday's NCAA Division I men's ice hockey semifinals, the Frozen Four marked the biggest games of their seasons. That comes with a week and a half of excitement and buildup, national television exposure and fanfare and the anticipation of competing for college hockey's greatest prize.
The two teams that blocked out everything that surrounded the game and focused on their own game plan and execution extended their weekend festivities. Yale defeated UMass-Lowell 3-2 in overtime in the first semifinal and Quinnipiac blitzed St. Cloud State early and went on to a 4-1 win in the second semifinal.
|Yale players celebrate after Andrew Miller's overtime goal.|
That sets up a championship pairing Saturday night (ESPN, 7 ET) between two member schools of ECAC Hockey that are geographically separated by less than 10 miles. They have built a strong rivalry in recent seasons after Quinnipiac joined the ECAC for the 2005-06 season.
With that rivalry comes history, and recent history favors the Bobcats, who defeated Yale in all three prior meetings this season by scores of 6-2 at Yale, 4-1 at home in Hamden, Conn., and 3-0 in the third-place game of the ECAC tournament in Atlantic City.
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold knows that won't matter on Saturday night.
"There's two ways to look at it. We're 3-0 against Yale, or that it's hard to beat somebody four times in a row. I'm not going to waver either way. The one thing I've seen about Yale is that this is a different team than we beat in Atlantic City," Pecknold said. "You can throw the [three wins] out the window. It's going to be a battle. They have some great players, we have some great players and we play different styles. It's going to be a war out there on Saturday."
What will matter is whether these teams can sustain the standard of play that has carried each team to three wins so far in this tournament and a combined 51 wins this season. Each made the tournament as an at-large team after successful regular seasons.
For Yale, it means a tenacious effort in all three zones, dominating puck possession and making smart plays and decisions as it did for all but about 90 seconds in Thursday's win.
That also comes with a steady mind no matter what adversity the team faces. Yale led 2-0 after the first period, but UMass-Lowell answered with two goals in a span of 14 seconds. That didn't shake the Bulldogs, who stuck to what makes them successful.
Instead of letting the momentum shift, they were at their best over the scoreless third period. Yale posted a 16-3 shots-on-goal advantage in that period and recorded all seven shots of the overtime period before Andrew Miller took advantage of a turnover and ended the game at 6:59 of overtime.
"One thing we preached all year and especially in the playoffs is there are going to be some ups and downs," Yale junior defenseman Gus Young said. "They're going to score some goals. We're going to score some goals. They are going to give up chances; we are going to give up chances.
"We just stuck to the game plan, kept bodies to the net; we kept our discipline, kept our shapes and we were able to wear them down and get going in the third and overtime."
Quinnipiac relies on Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist Eric Hartzell in goal, but benefits from having a veteran defense corps in front of him with four seniors, including Zach Davies, the conference's defensive defenseman of the year.
"I don't know that there's a true superstar back there, but that defensive corps, they all do different things. You can't substitute anything for experience," Pecknold said.
It's also a team that has the ability to score multiple goals in a short time frame because of the team's chemistry and ability to build momentum from shift to shift. The Bobcats' top seven scorers are all forwards and come from three different forward lines that are all dangerous. When one unit generates chances or scores a goal, the next three guys can't wait to take their shift and keep things going.
That was the story early in Thursday's second semifinal. The Bobcats drew an early penalty, scored a power-play goal two minutes into the period and added another three minutes later. After killing a penalty, Quinnipiac added a third at 11:19 of the period and never looked back.
"I think we've just got to keep doing what we have been doing," Quinnipiac captain Jeremy Langlois said. "If we play the way that we like to, that will definitely be beneficial to us."
It's worked so far for both teams, and will prove to be the difference Saturday night with the national championship on the line.