PITTSBURGH -- A breakout star always emerges at the Frozen Four, and without a Hobey Baker Award winner from either team participating in the national championship game, Saturday night served as an inviting opportunity to seize the spotlight.
But of all the budding stars who had already left their mark on the tournament, nobody would have pegged Yale goaltender Jeff Malcolm to be that guy.
After all, Malcolm had been outshined by his opponent (Hobey Baker Award candidate Eric Hartzell) and by his teammate, the charismatic face (and captain) of the Bulldogs, Andrew Miller, who had scored an overtime game winner two days earlier to send the Bulldogs to the title game.
And yet, in the tournament that nobody could have predicted, Malcolm was the hero nobody could have expected. He stopped 36 shots en route to the fifth title-game shutout in NCAA tournament history, and delivered Yale its first hockey national championship in school history.
In a post-game interview with ESPN, the words that Yale coach Keith Allain used to describe Malcolm’s work were “outstanding” and “unbelievable.”
Of course, his work had to be both, given who was in net at the other end of the ice.
“In the national tournament, if you can’t get up for that, you don’t really have a heartbeat,” Malcolm said. “There are a lot of good goaltenders in college hockey. Doesn’t change the fact that I have to play a [good] game.”
Malcolm certainly had good numbers entering the game, with a 19-6-2 record, .915 save percentage and 2.33 GAA. But that goals-against was only sixth-best in the ECAC – not exactly championship material on paper.
On Saturday night, he elevated his game, shutting down Quinnipiac’s potent transition attack and staying composed through several difficult combination saves, including several on a key 5-on-3 opportunity for the Bobcats in the second period. Malcolm, while impressive in that sequence, credited his defense.
“Those 5-on-3 kills have been pretty crucial for us all year,” Malcolm said. “The guys usually do a heck of a job with our penalty kill. The guys just got the puck out for me and let me see shots. It’s been like that all year.”
“Jeff played great all night. You could tell right from the start he was feeling it,” senior defensemen Colin Dueck said. “He was getting shots, seeing them, and moving well. In the second period he made a pretty good short breakaway stop, and I knew, at that point, he’s just closing the door.”
With Malcolm standing on his head in net, it allowed Yale to relax defensively and stretch the game, responding to each barrage from the Bobcats with offensive bursts of their own, including a goal in transition from Charles Orzetti to make it 2-0, beating Hartzell on a rebound.
“They [the Bobcats] come out and they’re really pushing in the first three or four minutes of the third period, they were getting chance after chance, and he held the fort for us,” Allain recounted.
On numerous occasions, there was a threat of a juicy rebound on a shot in transition from the Bobcats. Yet whenever the puck was juggled, or bounced back out in front, Malcom confidently and aggressively batted it away from trouble.
Malcolm also had to deal with abuse all night from Quinnipiac forwards who crashed into him frequently, perhaps giving Yale fans flashbacks of an injury that sidelined him for five games in February, a spell that nearly cost Yale a chance to compete for an at-large bid.
On February 1st, just three minutes into the game, Princeton forward Andrew Ammon barrelled into Malcolm, knocking him out of the game with a lower body injury. It took several minutes for Malcolm to leave the ice with the assistance of a trainer, and several days to get a clear prognosis for his return.
“When Jeff got hurt, it was a sad feeling for our team, and we were more personally worried about him,” senior captain Andrew Miller said. “We didn’t want him to go out like that in his senior year.”
With Malcolm absent, the Bulldogs sank into a rough patch, losing five consecutive games and dropping to 14th in the Pairwise rankings.
When Malcolm finally came back, it was ironically against Princeton, on February 23rd. His return wasn’t exactly one for the record books – 17 saves on 20 shots – but it re-energized the Bulldogs, who skated away with a 4-3 win, and they haven’t looked back.
“A lot of guys played injured this year. I wasn’t the only one,” Malcolm said. “At that point, when you’re hurt, you’ve just got to be an athlete, see if you can get back and contribute to your teammates.”
After Malcolm’s comeback, Yale rattled off 8 wins in 10 games to reach Saturday’s national title game, a rematch against Quinnipiac – the last team to beat them. The score that day: 3-0 Quinnipiac. The score on Saturday night: 3-0 Yale, with an empty net goal tacked on to make it 4-0.
“He did what great goaltenders do,” Allain beamed. “He gave us a chance to win.”