PITTSBURGH – Yale and Quinnipiac typically meet on the ice with little more than local bragging rights and the upper hand in the ECAC at stake.
Not so much the next time around.
The two schools separated by all of 10 miles of central Connecticut highway cruised to the NCAA hockey championship on Thursday. Yale edged UMass Lowell 3-2 in overtime in one semifinal, and top-seeded Quinnipiac followed by crushing St. Cloud State 4-1.
The victories set up the fourth showdown between the Bobcats and the Bulldogs since Groundhog Day. Quinnipiac is 3-0 against Yale this season, though it will hardly matter if the Bobcats (30-7-5) can't make it four straight.
"The one thing I've seen from Yale, this is a different team than when we beat them (last)," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said.
The Bulldogs (21-12-3) appeared so while dominating Hockey East champion UMass Lowell. Yale outshot the River Hawks (28-11-2) 47-18 and spent most of the game in Lowell's end of the ice.
Still, the Bulldogs needed senior Andrew Miller to play hero. The captain circled around two River Hawk defenders, then flipped a backhander between Connor Hellebuyck's legs 6:59 into the extra period to lift one of the nation's oldest programs to its first championship game appearance.
"That's probably the biggest goal in the history of Yale hockey," Yale coach Keith Allain said.
One that will give the Bulldogs a shot at redemption and helped guarantee a member of the ECAC will hoist the trophy for the first time since Harvard did it in 1989. The league plays in the shadow of the mighty Hockey East, but will have the spotlight all to itself in the final game of the season.
Pecknold doesn't think it's a coincidence.
"I think the ECAC was one of the best if not the best league in the country this year," Pecknold said. "Top to bottom, we're as good as anyone."
The Bobcats certainly are. Quinnipiac dismantled St. Cloud State with 12 dizzying minutes of precise hockey, scoring three times then riding Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell to the final.
In a way, Yale's triumph helped its rival move on. When the Bulldogs couldn't finish off the River Hawks in regulation, it forced St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac to wait in the dressing room.
The delay may have gotten to the Huskies. It only appeared to fire up the Bobcats.
Jordan Samuels-Thomas scored on a wraparound 1:49 into the game and Ben Arnt and Jeremy Langlois soon followed with goals of their own. It was more than enough cushion for Hartzell.
"I think we'd do anything to replay the first 10 minutes of the hockey game," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. "We dug ourselves a hole. They score three of their first four shots. We hunkered back down, but just couldn't overcome it."
St. Cloud State forward Drew LeBlanc — also a finalist for the Baker Award — managed just one shot in his final game as the Huskies struggled to get quality scoring chances.
"Hartzell is our best player, there is no question," Pecknold said. "But we play well in front of him. We compete, we battle, and it's a give and take between the two."
Quinnipiac had little trouble with Yale this season, outscoring the Bulldogs 13-3. The last victory was a 3-0 triumph in the ECAC third-place game, a contest with little on the line.
Pecknold considers his team "lucky" to have escaped. Yale has only gotten better over the last three weeks. Quinnipiac will get an eyeful on Saturday when they meet with a chance at history on the line.
"I think you can throw the 3-0 out the window," Pecknold said. "It's going to be a battle. They've got some great players. We've got some great players, and we definitely play two different type styles of game. We'll have to go to war on Saturday."