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Sports

Underdog Yale lights spark at Frozen Four

Yale players celebrated after defeating North Dakota to reach the Frozen Four.

Latara Appleby/The Grand Rapids Press/AP

Yale players celebrated after defeating North Dakota to reach the Frozen Four.

Of the 10,648 brackets submitted in the USCHO.com challenge for the NCAA Division 1 men’s ice hockey tournament, only 309 picked Yale to win.

Not the entire tournament, mind you. Simply the first game, against Minnesota.

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The Bulldogs upset the top-ranked Gophers in overtime of that West Regional opener, then knocked off North Dakota to advance to the Frozen Four.

They’re still playing, attempting to become the ultimate bracket busters by bringing home the program’s first national championship.

It’ll require two more wins, starting with Thursday’s 4:30 p.m. national semifinal against UMass-Lowell at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, home to the NHL’s Penguins. The winner plays St. Cloud State or Quinnipiac Saturday night for the championship.

Once again, Yale (20-12-3) will be perceived as the underdog against the River Hawks (28-10-2). Good thing the Bulldogs pay no attention to perception.

“I’ve been here for three years now, and even when we were ranked No. 1 in the country [two seasons ago], we had a lot of people writing us off,” said junior forward Kenny Agostino. “We don’t really focus too much about what the media is saying, what other teams are saying. I think we’re a team that does a great job of reacting very well to pressure and to criticism.”

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There has been some of both this season. The pressure came from a five-game losing streak in February, when starting goaltender Jeff Malcolm was out with an injury. With Malcolm back — he’s 18-6-2 on the season, with a 2.35 goals-against average — the Bulldogs have won seven of their last nine.

The criticism came more recently, by some who questioned Yale’s NCAA Tournament inclusion.

The Bulldogs lost in the ECAC semifinals — then lost the third-place game, getting outscored, 8-0, in the two defeats — and were the final at-large team to make the 16-team NCAA field, their spot secured only when Michigan failed to beat Notre Dame in the CCHA title game.

“We know how hard it is to get in,” said coach Keith Allain. “We got in based on the body of our work. We knew that we would have a tough challenge in the regional, and our guys overcame that.”

The last at-large selection suddenly finds itself as the only remaining team with any Frozen Four experience, although the championship weekend wasn’t called that in 1952, the only other time Yale has played in a national semifinal. Neither UMass-Lowell, St. Cloud State (25-15-1), nor Quinnipiac (29-7-5) — Yale’s ECAC neighbor not quite 10 miles down the road in Hamden — had ever advanced this far.

So how have the Bulldogs done it? With good goaltending and top-line skill, sure, but also a grit, determination, and moxie demanded by Allain, a Bay State native who took over at his alma mater in 2006 and has guided Yale to four 20-win seasons and four trips to the NCAAs in his seven years.

“He’s no dummy, having gone to Yale,” said Dave Silk, one of Allain’s friends who perhaps more famously won a gold medal with the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. “He really works at picking people’s brains. His retention level is very high.

“The fact that he looks very businesslike and buttoned-up and cool as a cucumber, don’t-let-them-see-you-sweat? Underneath, he’s just a competitive kid from Worcester that has worked and grinded for everything that he’s ever gotten.”

Silk’s introduction to Allain came in 1978 when both were in college, with Silk’s Boston University Terriers 21 games into trying to complete a perfect season. Allain, then the Yale goaltender, allowed five goals that night to the Terriers. But Yale scored seven, handing BU one of only two losses in what became an NCAA championship season.

Now Allain is trying to win one of his own.

“I think to get to the Frozen Four you need to be very, very resilient, and this team was,” Allain said.

“When you see the way the group played [in the West Regional], with the tenacity, and the work ethic, and the togetherness, that’s what it takes to get to this point, and we’re going to need a little bit more of that to get to the point we actually want to get to.”

Yale does boast some star power. Senior captain Andrew Miller has averaged more than a point per game during his career, and is second in scoring this season (16-21—37), behind Agostino (17-23—40). Junior forward Jesse Root (11-11—22) was MVP of the West Regional after scoring the winning goals in both games, including one nine seconds into overtime to beat Minnesota.

Now Root, a Pittsburgh native, gets to go home and play in front of a large number of friends and family.

Agostino’s name might ring a bell.

Originally drafted by the Penguins, he was dealt to the Calgary Flames March 27 as part of the Jarome Iginla trade. But the NHL can wait for Agostino, at least for now. He has some college business to complete.

“It’s surreal to realize that we’ll be playing in the Frozen Four,” said Agostino. “A national championship would be something that you’d have with you forever, but it starts with Game 1, obviously.

“After the Minnesota game, the last couple questions were just saying, ‘How unbelievable is this? Are you happy you just beat Minnesota?’ And I said, ‘We came here to win the regional, not to give Minnesota a good game. We came to beat Minnesota, and to beat whoever we play in the next round.’

“We’re going to the Frozen Four to win it.”

Should Yale beat UMass-Lowell Thursday, then St. Cloud State or Quinnipiac Saturday, it will certainly thrill the current Bulldogs, and all those who played for Yale in the past. That includes members of the 1952 team, at least two of whom have reached out to Allain since the Frozen Four berth was won.

A national championship would also be an unexpectedly sweet ending for 14 anonymous Yale hockey fans. That’s the number — out of those 10,648 brackets entered in the online contest — who boldly predicted not just one NCAA win for the Bulldogs this spring, but four.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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