If you didn’t know that Springfield’s American International College -- a school with fewer than 1,500 undergrads -- had a Division I college hockey team, you’d be forgiven. For most of their 21 seasons in Division I, there’s been little reason for anyone outside of college hockey die-hards to care or pay attention.
You should be paying attention now, though, because the Yellow Jackets just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college hockey history in their first-ever NCAA tournament game, beating No. 1 overall seed St. Cloud State 2-1, and are now one win away from the Frozen Four.
It’s been a season full of firsts for AIC. In his third season since taking over for longtime coach Gary Wright, head coach Eric Lang has led the Yellow Jackets to their first-ever winning record at the DI level (you read that right -- they had 20 straight losing seasons before this year), first-ever Atlantic Hockey regular-season title, first-ever Atlantic Hockey tournament title, and first-ever NCAA tournament berth.
But this first tops them all. By virtue of being the lowest-seeded team in the tournament, AIC drew top-seeded St. Cloud State, a team that has dominated all season and came in with a 30-5-3 record, and had to travel out to Fargo, North Dakota for the West Regional.
Just getting that far was more than enough to make this the best season in AIC history, but the Yellow Jackets clearly wanted more. They came to play, and that was evident right off the bat when they got a few early chances.
But AIC’s early goal wasn’t just some blip. It wasn’t against the grain of play. St. Cloud struggled to get anything going and finished the first period with just six shots on goal while still trailing 1-0.
The one area where the Yellow Jackets played with fire throughout the game was penalties. They gave St. Cloud’s seventh-ranked power play four chances, and finally got burned on the fourth when Easton Brodzinski’s centering pass deflected off an AIC defender and past Skog to cut the lead to 2-1 with 10:33 left in the game.
The Huskies really turned up the heat late in the third as they hunted for the tying goal, especially after they pulled their goalie for the extra attacker in the final minutes. But Skog -- who it’s worth noting had a subpar .896 save percentage entering the game -- stood on his head and made one big save after another, including three in a span of seconds during one net-front scramble with 1:16 to go.
With seconds and minutes feeling like an eternity as the Yellow Jackets tried to hang on, the final buzzer finally came and the AIC bench exploded. The celebration for one of the biggest upsets in college hockey history was underway.
It was a good night all-around for western Massachusetts, as UMass also won its tournament opener, beating Harvard 4-0 in the Northeast Regional in Manchester.
The Minutemen pretty much controlled play start to finish, as they outshot the Crimson 36-17. It took until the third period for that dominance to really translate to the scoreboard, though. A pair of goals from John Leonard and Brett Boeing 1:47 apart midway through the period turned a 1-0 game into a 3-0 lead, and an empty-netter from Boeing sealed UMass' second-ever NCAA tournament win and first since 2007.
It was an impressive bounceback effort for UMass after the Hockey East regular-season champs laid an egg in the Hockey East semifinals last Friday and lost 3-0 to an under-.500 Boston College team.
UMass will face Notre Dame -- who beat Clarkson in overtime Friday night -- in the regional final Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
Three more New England teams open their NCAA tournaments on Saturday. Providence faces Minnesota State in the East Regional in Providence at 1 p.m., followed by Northeastern taking on Cornell in the same regional at 4:30. Both of those games are on ESPNews. Then at 7:30 on ESPN3, Quinnipiac faces NCAA tournament newcomers Arizona State in the Midwest Regional in Allentown, Pennsylvania.