After a disastrous men’s hockey campaign last year, Bulldog fans were ready for the season-opening home doubleheader to give them an idea of what they should expect this season. But rather than shed any light on the upcoming year, Yale’s uneven performance this weekend only produced more questions.
The season began with promise as the fiery Elis (0-2-0, 0-2-0 ECACHL) went blow-for-blow with heavily favored No. 4 Cornell (3-1-0, 2-0-0), falling 4-2 in a hard fought battle that was much closer than expected. But a 6-2 blowout loss at the hands of Colgate (5-1-1, 2-0-0) the following night forced fans and players alike to wonder which team was the real Bulldogs.
“Friday we were clicking on all cylinders, offense, defense and special teams,” wingman Joe Zappala ’06 said. “Saturday we got behind early. There were special team mishaps. We were anticipating coming out and dominating, and when that didn’t happen we lost focus.”
Coming into the weekend, the Big Red were not only the early season favorites in the ECAC but were undefeated against Yale in the past 10 meetings. Despite a quick Cornell goal by Evan Barlow four minutes into the game, the underdog Bulldogs simply refused to be intimidated. Just eight minutes later, the Elis made the most of a power-play advantage when forward Nate Jackson ’06 received a Zach Mayer ’06 feed from behind the net, and slipped a backhander past Cornell goalie David McKee to even the score.
Cornell reclaimed the lead off of a short-handed goal by Mitch Carefoot with four minutes left in the first period. But shortly after, center Brad Mills ’07 showed why he led the Elis in points and goals last season as a sophomore. Less than two minutes into the second frame, Mills was denied by a sprawling McKee. But the junior star from Alberta, Canada, quickly rebounded the puck and shot it past the fallen McKee for the equalizer.
From then on, the defenses took over as both teams strove to let down neither physically nor mentally. Yale did not back down, serving numerous hard hits and checks, much to the enjoyment of the Bulldog fans. Zappala said the defensive effort stands out as the most telling aspect of Friday’s performance.
“Our commitment to team defense was by far the best improvement in the transition from last year to this season,” Zappala said. “We’re just doing everything we can to keep the pucks out of the net, something we didn’t always do last year, which forced us to crawl from behind a lot of the games.”
Goaltender Josh Gartner ’06 nearly matched the more heralded McKee save for save. Gartner finished with 25 to McKee’s 27.
But it was the one save Gartner couldn’t provide that proved to be the difference. A power-play goal by Cornell’s Raymond Sawada early in the third period gave the Big Red a 3-2 lead they would not give up despite Yale’s greatest efforts. With just one minute remaining, the Elis seriously threatened to tie the game, but a re-direction shot by Zappala just missed the net. Cornell secured the puck, cleared it out of their zone and wristed it in the Elis’ empty net to pick up their fourth and final goal.
Even then, the Bulldogs showed their mettle. Tempers flared in front of the Cornell net with 43 seconds to go. The scuffle erupted into a full-on altercation as officials struggled mightily to separate the teams, resulting in Brennan Turner’s ’09 ejection and suspension from the Colgate game. While perhaps not the finest moment in Yale hockey history, the fight illustrated a newfound resiliency and character that often seemed to be missing last season.
“Fighting in this league is obviously frowned upon,” Zappala said. “But sticking up for your teammates goes a lot further in my book than getting a penalty. So we were upset that Turner had to sit out on Saturday, but he got a lot of respect from the whole team. And it shows our team camaraderie that should carry over the whole season.”
But if Friday’s bout with Cornell flashed Yale’s exciting potential, then Saturday’s loss to Colgate showed signs of the same old overmatched Bulldogs.
The Raiders sapped the life from Ingalls Rink early in the first period off a Tyler Burton shot that went past Yale goalie Matt Modelski ’07. But unlike the previous night, the Elis simply could not muster a comeback. The Bulldogs went 0-for-4 on power-play opportunities in the first period and 1-for-7 for the game. By the end of the first period, Colgate had a three-goal lead on Yale, effectively silencing the once-revved up fans.
With the crowd a non-factor, the Bulldogs seemed to play without the energy and swagger they displayed Friday. Jackson made it a 4-1 game with five minutes to go in the second period, but the Raiders bounced back moments later. Nick St. Pierre broke away from the pack and slipped it right under Yale goalie Alec Richards ’09, who had replaced Modelski halfway through the second period and finished with nine saves in his Yale debut.
Defender Shawn Mole ’07 gave the Bulldogs their second and final goal when he received a feed from Matt Craig ’06 and slapped a long shot past several Colgate defenders and goalie Mark Dekanich.
The impressive goal could not overshadow the fact that the Bulldogs were overwhelmed Saturday night.
“I’m disappointed in our performance Saturday night after a pretty good one on Friday,” Mills said. “I think we looked like a completely different team. The competition and effort was not nearly as high as it needed to be.”
It remains to be seen which performance will emerge this season as Yale’s true identity. Defender Bill LeClerc ’07 said Friday’s performance showed that the Bulldogs have the potential to be a much stronger team than last year’s.
“I think Friday night was the best we’ve looked in the three years I’ve been here,” he said. “If we come out with that same mindset every night, we should be headed in the right direction.”
But the bottom line is that the Bulldogs have started the season 0-2. And for a team that played 10 games before picking up their first win last season and finished with just three wins all year, the bottom line is all that matters.
So while there are definite reasons to be optimistic, Mills said things are still going to have to improve quickly for the team to succeed.
“Friday shows that we have the ability to compete in this league, which is encouraging,” Mills said. “[But overall] the weekend shows that we [still have] a long way to go as a team.”