Playoff win is little comfort for pucksters

When defenseman Joe Callahan ’05 announced he would forego his final year of eligibility at Yale to sign a pro contract with the Phoenix Coyotes, members of the media took it as a guarantee that Yale, which had already lost star blueliner Jeff Dwyer ’04 to graduation, would be in for a long rebuilding year.

They were right.

Though the Elis returned their top three scorers (forwards Joe Zappala ’06, Christian Jensen ’06, and Jeff Hristovski ’06) and top three goalies (Matt Modelski ’07, Josh Gartner ’06, and Peter Cohen ’05), nearly every major publication had the team in or near the cellar of the ECAC.

Opening weekend only added fuel to the fire.

As students trekked up Prospect Street to Ingalls Rink Oct. 29 for the first game of the year, there was a palpable sense of overconfidence in the air. Yalies seemed assured that the Bulldogs would take out on the visitors the lingering aggression accrued during the seven-game losing skid on which they ended the 2003-04 season. Alabama-Huntsville sounded more like a football school, and surely the Bulldogs would teach the Chargers a thing or two about hockey.

The bravado seemed to carry onto the ice, however, as the young, listless Yale team, still searching for its identity, could not win on geographical stereotypes alone, and indeed fell 5-2 to underrated Alabama-Huntsville, which went on to finish second in its conference.

The next night things got worse, as Yale suffered perhaps its most embarrassing loss in team history, a 10-0 drubbing at the hands of St. Cloud State.

Yale’s snipers were not sniping; its three talented goalies were slumping at the same time; and the team was waiting for defenseman Rob Page ’08, a freshman with only high school experience, to fill the void left by future NHL players Dwyer and Callahan.

Yale dropped each of its first nine games, scoring more than two goals in only one of those contests.

“Coming in we were pretty disappointed that we were slated to finish 11th in the league,” Zappala said. “We thought nobody knew what kind of talent we had. We tried to prove the critics wrong, but we definitely fell short.”

But in the 10th game, Modelski and the offense pulled the team out of its funk. That game, a 7-1 home victory over Princeton Nov. 27, marked a new beginning for the Elis.Yale began playing strong team defense with some consistency, keeping opponents’ shots to the perimeter and letting the red-hot Modelski do the rest. Three games stood out to forward Zach Mayer ’06.

“The [1-1 tie] against Wisconsin out there we really played well,” Mayer said. “[Because of injury] I didn’t play the BC game [a 1-0 loss], but that was great too. And the second Colgate game [a 0-0 tie] was really great. Our goal at beginning of the year was to be a more defensive team and in those games against solid offenses we were able to execute on D. Everyone came together on the same page.”

Modelski made 101 saves in those three memorable games against top-ranked foes, yielding just two goals in 130 minutes of play and earning the first shutout for a Yale goalie since 2001.

But it was not just Modelski and the defensemen who stepped up after Thanksgiving. The offense, led by Hristovski, second-team All-Ivy recipient Jensen, and breakthrough performer Brad Mills ’07, began to impress fans on a regular basis. Once the highly talented Page adjusted to the college level of play, he teamed with Zappala, Mills, Hristovski and Jensen, who dropped back to the point, to form one of the league’s more formidable power-play units.

Yale’s special teams accounted for 10 of its 18 goals from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5, and the momentum from that stretch contributed to the scoreless tie with Colgate Feb. 11. In that game, however, Mills, who finished the year with a team-high 26 points, injured a ligament in his knee.

The team dropped all five of the remaining regular-season games it played without him, as the injury bug worked its way through the lineup.

A knee injury cost defenseman Chris Brooks ’06 much of his junior season, while Mayer was sidelined by a torn shoulder muscle. Concussions claimed Gartner, Jensen, and defensemen Shawn Mole ’07 and Matt Cohen ’07, and Jensen’s was so severe that it will force the two-sport athlete to miss the entire lacrosse season. In the end, only six of the 25 Elis — Page, Zappala, Nate Jackson ’06, Blair Yaworski ’08, Matt Craig ’06 and Bill LeClerc ’07 — played in all 32 of Yale’s games.

In spite of all the injuries, team captain Nick Shalek ’05 said in an interview a week before the start of the playoffs that he took great pride in how high the team’s spirits still were.

“We look back on the season and obviously we’re all disappointed about how it’s turned out,” Shalek said. “But we feel remarkably good for a 4-23 team.”

Though playing through immense pain, the Elis made good on their captain’s words and looked like a top seed for much of their three-game, first-round ECAC playoff series against Dartmouth.

They salvaged a 5-4 overtime win over the Big Green in game two of the series, which they eventually lost two-games-to-one in Hanover. In the team’s lone victory, winger Will Engasser ’08 notched his first collegiate points, a pair of goals that included the game-winner in overtime. Gartner was the other star, making an eye-popping 60 saves.

Zappala said late in the year he saw signs of good things to come for Yale.

“Going into next year, we’ve seen the worst that we can see, and we’ll benefit from that,” he said. “Will Engasser didn’t have a goal all year and then he got two goals for us in a playoff game. Mills had breakout year and is now one of the most talented players in the league. We don’t look at this record that we have and get discouraged. The attitude is positive looking into next year.”

Mayer pointed out that Yale, which graduates only three seniors – Shalek, Pete Cohen and forward C.J. Nibbe – will go from one of the younger teams in the league to one of the oldest.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t do well next year and challenge for one of the top four spots and a bye in the playoffs,” Mayer said. “We have enough guys returning that we shouldn’t need to play more than one or two freshmen, which is a big help. Experience is really important in our league.”

While the team is optimistic about next year, its defense must improve. The strides Yale made in its own zone, particularly while short-handed, were undone by sloppy play late in the year. And while Modelski showed flashes of brilliance in the middle of the season in games against Wisconsin, Boston College and Colgate, he ended the year as just one third of head coach Tim Taylor’s goaltender-by-committee system.

With Page blossoming as an able quarterback of the Yale power play, and the team’s top six scorers being returning forwards, the offense will surely improve. But opponents scored twice as often (140-70) as Yale this season, and the Elis will find themselves once again on the outside looking in if their defense does not improve dramatically in 2005-06.

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