Yale players work on a drill between goaltenders Jeff Malcolm, left, and Nick Maricic, right, during NCAA college hockey practice Friday at the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. Yale takes on Quinnipiac on the championship game today.
PITTSBURGH — As a defenseman, Yale’s Mitch Witek didn’t go to college to score goals.
So, when the freshman played 21 games before the Frozen Four semifinal without finding the back of the net, he wasn’t concerned.
Scoring the first goal of this Frozen Four wasn’t a bad way to start.
With 7:05 left in the first period, Witek fired a wrist shot from the top of the right circle. Teammate Kenny Agostino set a screen in front of UMass-Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck, and the puck found its way into the net for Witek’s first career goal.
“I didn’t even know I scored,” Witek said.
He found out quickly enough as teammates swarmed to him and the scoreboard lit up, showing a 1-0 Yale lead. That lead turned to 2-0 and, eventually, a 3-2 win for the Bulldogs.
“We were thrilled for him,” teammate Jesse Root said. “To do it on this stage is pretty special. To score your first goal in college hockey. I remember mine. It was so exciting. For him to do that at the Frozen Four, I can only imagine.”
Not only did Witek’s goal give the Bulldogs an early lead, but it established a flow in which Yale pummeled Hellebuyck with shot after shot.
The unexpected goal-scorer Thursday typifies Yale’s tournament run.
The Bulldogs have gone from the last at-large team in the field to the cusp of a national title.
Yale had to watch Michigan lose on the final day of the season to earn their spot as the No. 15 seed in 16-team tournament.
Not many gave the Bulldogs a chance against mighty Minnesota in the first round and perennial power North Dakota in the second.
“I personally don’t see us as underdogs,” Yale defenseman Colin Dueck said Wednesday. “I think people might choose different teams for different reasons, but I think we’re very confident coming in.”
The Bulldogs were confident because of their play in the regional, but they also have some history on their side.
In 2008, Notre Dame became the first No. 4 seed to reach the Frozen Four since the tournament expanded to 16 teams in 2003.
Since then, three more No. 4 seeds have played for the championship.
“I think it’s a lot more even around all of college hockey than people give it credit for,” Root said. “You’ve seen it this year, you’ve seen it the last couple of years where you have teams that do well that aren’t necessarily expected to do well, even though they’re great teams.”
There’s one thing a No. 4 seed hasn’t done: Win a national championship.
Even if the Bulldogs make history later today, Root said he wouldn’t see it as a victory for the little guy, just a victory for Yale hockey.
“I think we’ve shown what we can do so far, and we’ve got one game to prove that again,” Root said. “We don’t see ourselves as a four seed.”
All that matters is that, at the end of the night, they could see themselves as national champions.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sam Werner is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.