When Yale was ousted by Dartmouth from the quarterfinal round of the ECAC Tournament two weeks ago Bulldogs goalie Alex Lyon tipped his mask to Big Green goalie Charles Grant after he turned back 96 of 98 shots in the two-game sweep.
What else could he do?
“He was just unconscious, particularly on Saturday night (46 saves),” Lyon said of Grant. “That’s what happens sometimes in the playoffs. You run into a hot goalie and there’s not a lot you can do.”
True, but typically the skate is on the other foot when it comes to hot goalies and Yale hockey.
In a season dominated by great goalie play across college hockey, Lyon has arguably been the best of the bunch.
He leads the nation with a 1.59 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage and has five shutouts to lead the stingiest team defense in the nation (1.74 goals per game). He’s a Mike Richter Award finalist, given to the top goalie in college hockey each season, a Hobey Baker Award finalist for top player in colllege hockey and earned his second consecutive Ken Dryden Award for being the top goalie in the ECAC.
He’s also 19-7-4 on the season and as much as he admired Grant’s performance, he made just 15 saves in the same game and said the loss is “fuel for the fire.”
“We haven’t been swept all year and a sweep like that is extra incentive to come out guns blazing,” Lyon said.
The Bulldogs will need all the offensive they can muster as they prepare for Saturday’s East Region semifinal game against UMass Lowell, the one team where the Bulldogs can’t claim a massive defensive advantage.
The River Hawks rank second in the nation defensively, just behind Yale at 1.82 goals per game and are anchored by goalie Kevin Boyle, who carries a .935 save percentage and 1.77 goals-against average into Saturday’s semi.
Boyle was just named the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week and co-Player of the Year after stopping 79 of 83 shots (.940 save percentage) in the tournament semifinals and finals where he was named tournament MVP last weekend. He was at his best Friday night when he made a career-high 58 saves in the River Hawks’ 2-1 triple overtime victory over defending national champion Providence, the league’s regular season co-champion.
Like Lyon, he’s a Richter finalist.
Quinnipiac, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, squares off in the other semifinal against Atlantic Hockey Conference champion Rochester Institute of Technology, the 36th-ranked PairWise team and the tournament 16th seed, in the other semifinal.
Last year, RIT was in the same position when it became the first 16-seed to knock off overall No. 1 seed Mankato State, 2-1, in the regional semifinal. RIT was the fifth seed in its conference tournament last week.
Lyon said he and his teammates know exactly how dangerous RIT can be despite not facing them on the ice this season. That’s because his teammate, senior Stu Wilson, is the son of RIT coach Wayne Wilson and also the team’s second-leading scorer with 26 points.
“We’ve been fans of RIT because of Stu and his dad,” Lyon said. “We know more about them than you would think and we’re familiar with how good Quinnipiac is having played them (and lost) twice and we have history with Mass Lowell from a couple of years ago.”
Quinnipiac may be without the services of leading scorer Sam Anas, who was hit from behind early in the ECAC title game and suffered an injury. Last year, when the Bobcats were eliminated by North Dakota in the regional competition in Fargo, N.D., Anas also played injured.
On paper the marquee semifinal matchup is Yale-UMass Lowell. The game is a rematch of the 2013 Frozen Four semifinal that Yale won, 3-2, en route to its only national title and a 4-0 win over Quinnipiac.
That three teams in the region competed in the 2013 Frozen Four is more fuel to the fire.
Yale is averaging just 2.71 goals per game, 27th in the nation, while UMass Lowell ranks 12th at 3.30 goals per game.
“That’s shaping up to be a boring game,” Lyon joked. “No, it’s exciting, actually. It could be a defensive battle.”
River Hawks coach Norm Bazin is happy to be playing outside of Hockey East again. The conference has six of its 12 teams in the 16-team NCAA field.
“Not playing somebody from Hockey East is exciting for us because it’s been such a grind in Hockey East,” said Bazin. “It’s nice to play somebody from another conference. (Yale is) a great opponent and after that there will be another great opponent. We’re looking forward to playing more hockey.”
Neither Boyle or Lyon were drafted by NHL teams and will be free agents after the season should they choose to go that route, something neither is thinking of right now.
Lyon grew up in Baudette, Minn., a town of approximately 1,000 people. Until the age of 5 he lived on an island and attended a one-room school with his sister, who is five years older, as the family operated an ice fishing service called “Lyon Sleepers” that is still in operation today.
“We moved to town when I was 6 and our high school teams were good but we never made it to the state tournament or anything like that,” Lyon said. “It’s a real small town in a great area. I grew up a huge Gophers fan and UND was right down the road but neither recruited me. Eight years ago when I was in high school I was really only getting looks from St. Cloud, Bemidji State, Mankato (now Minnesota State) and smaller schools like that. You have to realize back then those teams weren’t as big into hockey as they are now. It was different back then.
“When Yale started recruiting me out of the USHL I jumped at the chance to get an Ivy League education. Plus, my dad played here.”
In an ironic twist, because Yale was ousted in the quarterfinals of its conference playoffs, the Bulldogs had to wait until Sunday to find out if they earned an at-large bid and their playoff hopes came down to having Michigan beat his home-state Gophers.
There was no question his allegiance fully shifted to Big Blue.
“We don’t get the Big Ten Network out East so we didn’t have a viewing party or anything like that,” Lyon said. “Now that I play out here I don’t cheer for the Gophers at all. It’s changed.
“We’re just happy to be in it. It’s so tough to say whether you’re in a good region for yourself or not. When you look up and down at the teams in it anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got bring your A-game on the night you play and leave it all out there. That’s college hockey right now.”
Above and middle: In a season dominated by great goalie play in college hockey, Yale’s Alex Lyon has arguably been the best of the bunch. (Courtesy Steve Musco)