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Yale punches ticket to Frozen Four with 4-1 upset of North Dakota

Yale’s Mitch Witek celebrates after defeating North Dakota in their NCAA West Regional championship game Saturday in Grand Rapids, Mich. Yale won 4-1. Latara Appleby | The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Early in the month, North Dakota finished one goal away from winning the MacNaughton Cup.

Saturday afternoon’s near-miss was a lot more painful.

In the final eight minutes, UND watched a 1-0 lead turn into a 4-1 loss to Yale in the NCAA West Regional final in a quiet Van Andel Arena.

Josh Balch scored the tying goal with 7 minutes, 35 seconds left and Jesse Root added the eventual winner on the power play just 2:39 later as the Bulldogs crashed UND’s hopes for a sixth Frozen Four trip in nine years.

Instead, it’s a Yale team – the last one to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA field – that will be going to Pittsburgh in two weeks. It’s the school’s first-ever trip to the Frozen Four.

“We’re thrilled to get the win today,” Yale coach Keith Allain said. “North Dakota got the early lead but I felt we were playing well throughout the game. The guys just stuck with the plan.”

It’s the first time in 10 years that UND finished a season without a MacNaughton Cup, Broadmoor Trophy or a trip to the Frozen Four. Two of the three were inches away, which made it tougher for the players to take afterward.

“It’s a tough spot in our locker room right now,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s a pretty tough situation for them. It’s difficult to walk into a press conference a few minutes after your season ends.”

The locker room was silent 20 minutes after the game with all the players still wearing their gear.

UND junior goaltender Clarke Saunders made a surprise start in place of Zane Gothberg, who had a foot ailment that kept him from playing in the regional championship. The junior from Brockville, Ont., was excellent, and kept UND in the lead most of the game.

Saunders wound up with 35 saves for UND, while Jeff Malcolm stopped 24 shots for Yale.

UND got off to a good start when Corban Knight turned a Yale defenseman inside out, skated past him wide and sniped the glove-side corner of the net at 7:22 of the first. After that, the Bulldogs pushed back, outshooting UND 25-16 through two periods.

“Yale played an outstanding hockey game,” Hakstol said. “There were a lot of ebbs and flows. They pushed the pace throughout the game. They did a good job throughout. I thought we had a pretty good third period going, but we got ourselves back on our heels with a couple of penalties. Ultimately, that pushed us toward our undoing.”

On the tying goal, UND couldn’t get a puck deep from the red line and the Bulldogs came back with numbers. Forward Anthony Day threw a shot from the corner to the top of the crease, where Balch was able to knock a rebound by Saunders.

Less than two minutes later, Mark MacMillan was called for running into the goaltender behind the net and the Bulldogs capitalized at the end of the power play.

Root, a Pittsburgh native who scored the game-winner a night earlier against Minnesota, picked up a loose puck in the left circle and sniped it off the post and in.

“Both of my goals this weekend were special,” Root said. “Any time you get to move on is real special.”

Yale added two late ones, including an empty-netter, as UND pushed for the equalizer.

UND had a few lost opportunities to extend the game to 2-0. UND hit three posts in the second and third periods while the game was 1-0 – one by Danny Kristo, one by Colten St. Clair and one on a deflection in front of the net.

Yale also killed both of UND’s power play chances.

Brad Elliott Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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