You don’t get many second chances in life, but this weekend, at the NCAA East Regional, Yale will get not one, but two.
When the Bulldogs take the ice on Friday evening to face Air Force in the second of two regional semifinals at the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard it will be the first time Yale has played in Bridgeport since a 4-1 loss to Vermont in the 2009 NCAA East Regional. However, while 16 players remain from that Yale team, none of them are giving any thought to the Catamounts.
“That isn’t something that we talk about,” senior defenseman Jimmy Martin said on Thursday. “Two years ago was a different team than now. I like this team and the way that we’re playing. Hopefully we’ll continue that tomorrow.”
Rather, the Bulldogs are focusing on another second chance: the opportunity to defeat an Air Force team that handed them their first loss of the season on November 14, coming back from a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 win over a Yale team that took seven penalties in the third period and yielded a pair of power-play goals.
“Obviously one thing that you learn is that we have to stay out of the penalty box,” Yale head coach Keith Allain said, “and that no lead is safe, particularly with a team as fit and as hard-working as Air Force.”
Not only is Air Force fit and hard-working, but after beating the Bulldogs in November, the Falcons are confident.
“After you win a game like that over a great team like Yale, there’s no reason to ever doubt yourself,” said Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. “It’s not like you aspire to do it, you did it. If you did it once you can do it again. Just knowing we played them and had success. We know Yale is a terrific team but we know they’re also human and they’re going to have to play a good game against us.”
“I think our record shows we started really playing well after that game,” said junior forward Paul Weisgarber. “What it comes down to is just having confidence in [freshman goaltender] Jason Torf.”
Torf, who earned his first collegiate win in that game, has matured into a solid presence in net for the Falcons. He enters Friday’s game with a 16-8-3 record, a 2.90 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but the native of Hermosa Beach, California, is coming off the biggest performance of his career, having stopped all 40 shots he faced against RIT in the Atlantic Hockey championship game at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
“Our road record was better than our home record for a while,” Serratore said, “This team has been the most resilient team I’ve had.”
That win earned the Falcons the right to play in Bridgeport, where they upset Michigan in the East Regional two years ago, and went to double overtime with Vermont before missing out on a trip to the Frozen Four. The Falcons are getting a second chance in their own right, but to make good, they’ll have to beat Yale and either Union or Minnesota Duluth.
The Dutchmen and the Bulldogs will play at 3 p.m. on Friday in the first semifinal, Union’s first game in two weeks since losing to Colgate in the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals. While the regular-season champs were disappointed to not be able to add a playoff title in Atlantic City – that honor went to Yale – Dutchmen head coach Nate Leaman is confident that his team will be able to successfully bounce back from that loss and make good on the first NCAA Tournament bid in the school’s Division I history.
“This has been the best team that I’ve had from learning from losses,” Leaman said When Yale beat us 5-0 earlier in the year our goal was to improve more than Yale for the next time that we met. A pretty easy goal, a simple goal. We accomplished that. We’ve only had nine losses this year so it may be easy to improve from our losses.”
While Union could get a shot at Yale in the regional final, the Dutchmen figure to have their hands full with the region’s other Bulldogs. Duluth features a Hobey Baker finalist in junior center Jack Connolly (16g, 39a), who centers the nation’s top scoring line with classmate Mike Connolly (no relation; 26g, 23a) and senior winger Justin Fontaine (20g, 32a).
“I’ve been giving them the puck all year,” the setup man extraordinaire said, “and they’ve been putting the puck in the net so they could very much be in the same position as me and I’m just honored to be recognized as a candidate.”
While Connolly certainly has his chance to hoist the Hobey on April 9 as the top player in the nation, the hardware he’s more concerned about will be handed out the following night.
The battle to get there starts on Friday.