To say that conventional wisdom is going against the men’s hockey team this weekend would be an understatement. Then again, the Bulldogs about as far as it gets from conventional.
Yale (14-13-0, 10-10-0 ECAC) concludes its roller coaster regular season with a pivotal road test at third place Harvard (12-14-1, 11-8-1) tonight (7:00, WYBC-AM 1340) and the season finale at cellar-dwelling Brown (4-20-3, 2-15-3) tomorrow (7:00, WYBC-AM 1340).
The Bulldogs, currently tied with Rensselaer for sixth place in the ECAC, trail fifth-place Dartmouth by two points at the lower boundary of the pivotal race for playoff home ice.
With a weekend sweep, the Elis would likely grab home ice, and they could potentially leapfrog Harvard and Cornell to rise as high as third place.
“We can’t be happy with anything less than a sweep,” defenseman Joe Dart ’01 said.
That won’t come easily for the Bulldogs though. Yale has posted a horrendous 1-17-3 mark at Harvard’s Bright Center since it opened in 1980 — the Bulldogs’ lone win came in the 1997-98 ECAC Championship season. They haven’t closed the regular season with five wins in a row since they went to the NCAA tournament in 1951-52. And they haven’t swept a road series since knocking Dartmouth and Vermont away from the Whale over two years ago. All of that will have to change if the Bulldogs want a shot to claim playoff home ice for the third time in the last nine seasons.
“We know we have a tough task ahead of us,” Eli coach Tim Taylor said. “But it’s also a great opportunity for our team to be within reach of home ice and even third place at this point. This black-and-white personality of ours has to go away and the Yale hockey team has to show up.”
The Elis do have one big advantage in their corner as they enter their biggest fight of the season — momentum.
After scoring only four goals in five games and dropping five out of six contests, the Bulldogs have since run off 19 goals in three straight wins. The offense has put up a hat trick in each of the three games, marking the first time in Yale hockey history that the Elis have posted three straight hat tricks.
The revamped top line of Hobey Baker candidate and newly crowned Yale all-time scoring king Jeff Hamilton ’01, captain Ben Stafford ’01, and Luke Earl ’02 has put up a staggering 25 points over those three games. Earl, who was chosen ECAC Player of the Week this week, posted nine points en route to Yale’s sweep of Vermont and Dartmouth last weekend.
“It was a great boost to get the sweep at home at a vital time,” Taylor said. “We know we’re playing better offense now, and we know we’re capable of playing better defense for sure.”
Indeed, the defense will be the key for the Bulldogs this weekend. Taylor’s bunch has surrendered 52 goals in 13 road games while allowing only 41 in 14 home games.
The Cantabs, who average 3.00 goals per contest in conference games, will do their best to exploit Yale’s erratic defense Friday night. Harvard forward Dominic Moore, who ranks fourth in the ECAC with 28 conference points, and brother Steve anchor the Crimson offense. Freshman Tim Pettit is averaging a point a game and should get serious consideration for ECAC Rookie of the Year.
“They have a very fast and very skilled group of forwards,” Dart said. “We just have to play physical and go for the body whenever we can so they can’t free flow like they like to do.”
Harvard has struggled lately, though, winning just two of their last eight games. Crimson goaltender Oliver Jonas has been inconsistent in those games. The senior gave up 13 goals in two games against Northeastern and Clarkson but only one in a pair of games against St. Lawrence and Rensselaer.
Earl, Dart and Stafford all beat Jonas in Yale’s 3-1 win over Harvard Jan. 13 at the Ingalls Rink. The Bulldogs went on to knock off Brown 6-1 the next night to finish off the sweep.
“That was probably our best weekend of the season,” Taylor said. “We played a fire brand of hockey, staying on our backchecks and outskating both teams with a fiery team personality. That’s what we preach to this team — leave everything you’ve got on the ice.”
The Bears have been hibernating essentially all season, ranking dead last in the ECAC in offense, defense, power play and penalty kill. Brown has posted a 0-11-1 mark in its last 12 games, and the Bears have managed only one Ivy win all season.
Yale can wrap up its third Ivy League crown in four years with a win or Harvard loss either night this weekend. Home ice, though, will likely require a sweep, and that is what the Elis have their eyes on.
“We know the magnitude of what’s at stake and what’s available to us this weekend,” Taylor said. “I think this team has the character and the ability to go out with all guns blazing.”
As if there is not enough on the line already, a Yale win over Harvard tonight would finish a clean Eli sweep of the three major sports — football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey. It would mark only the first time in 61 years that the Bulldogs have accomplished that feat.