PITTSBURGH — When Yale dropped a pair of games during the ECAC tournament by a combined score of 8-0, coach Keith Allain called it an anomaly.
He believed in his team, and that faith paid off the following weekend when the Bulldogs played giant killers by knocking off Minnesota in overtime, 3-2, and then North Dakota, 4-1, to advance to the Frozen Four.
When the team arrived to play red-hot UMass-Lowell, some hockey pundits believed the Bulldogs’ Cinderella ride was about to turn into a pumpkin.
Instead, they ended the River Hawks’ fairy-tale season.
The Bulldogs (21-12-3) dominated for most of the game before completing a 3-2 overtime win Thursday night, earning a spot in Saturday night’s championship game against Quinnipiac.
Senior right wing Andrew Miller skated from the right circle into the slot, shifted from his forehand to his backhand, and beat Lowell freshman Connor Hellebuyck through the pads at 6:59 of overtime.
Yale had taken a 2-0 lead in the first period behind freshman defenseman Mitch Witek, who scored his first collegiate goal, on the power play at 12:55 and Antoine Laganiere (No. 15, 19:08).
The River Hawks (28-11-2), who gave up two goals in the opening period for the first time under Hellebuyck’s watch, turned the table for a spell in the second period, battling back with a pair of goals 14 seconds apart. Riley Wetmore broke through at 14:38 and Joseph Pendenza scored at 14:52.
But there was no real shift in momentum in the River Hawks’ favor. Instead, Yale continued to play aggressively and was more determined, faster, and, for the vast majority of the contest, the better team. UMass-Lowell had just 18 shots in the entire contest to 47 for the Bulldogs.
“I’m so proud of our guys, the way they prepared for the tournament here and the way they came out and started the game,’’ said Allain. “We faced a little bit of adversity in the middle of that second period, but we regrouped and kind of just stuck with the plan.
“Line after line, [defensive] pair after [defensive] pair, I thought we just came after Lowell, and eventually [Miller] was able to get that goal in overtime.
“Lowell is a great and worthy opponent and that’s what makes the win so special for us.’’
One of the areas Yale excelled was taking UMass-Lowell out of its transition game, which was something on which the River Hawks prided themselves.
“We were very patient and disciplined offensively with the puck,’’ said Allain. “I think where they get teams into trouble is they get them to try to do something they shouldn’t do and they pick it off and they’re off the races because they have such great quickness.’’
Aside from the two-goal flurry, the Bulldogs controlled the puck the majority of the time. Yale outshot the River Hawks in the third period and in overtime, 23-3.
Yale’s win ensured that an ECAC team will be in the title game for the first time since 1990 when Colgate lost to Wisconsin.
“I think we have a terrific league,’’ said Allain. “Maybe we don’t get the publicity we deserve, but we’ve got great players in our league and great universities in our league and we have darned good coaches.
“I also understand that our league hasn’t had much success in this tournament and, until you earn it, you don’t deserve it. So maybe things will change after this weekend.’’
For the River Hawks, it was a devastating end to a program-best run. They have much on which to build — the Hockey East regular-season crown, the league tournament victory, the NCAA Northeast Regional title, and their first appearance in the Frozen Four.
“Tonight, we certainly didn’t have it,’’ said second-year coach Norm Bazin. “First and foremost, [the Bulldogs] have excellent team speed and we knew that. They post a lot of guys in the neutral zone and usually we can adjust to that. We have in the last couple of weeks against teams that are very similar. However, we had no response.
“It was just one of those games where the magic certainly wasn’t there tonight. Nothing different from what we saw over the course of the week in our preparation. Some days you’re on, some days you’re not. Today we weren’t.
“Despite coming back and making it a 2-2 game, the momentum didn’t swing. Usually it does. I didn’t think we had enough puck possession time to be a threat tonight and usually that’s our forte so it’s a credit to them.’’