While the majority of the Yale student body spent winter break cooling down from a long semester, the men’s hockey team was heating up during the holidays.
After a three-week hiatus earlier in the month, Yale (5-9-1, 4-6 ECACHL) returned to the ice in late December and proved quickly that the second half of their season could be dramatically different from the beginning. In four games, the Bulldogs went an impressive 2-1-1, including back-to-back ECACHL wins against Princeton (5-12-1, 2-9-1) and Quinnipiac (10-11, 4-9) to extend their league winning streak to four games.
“We are all playing a lot smarter now and have really gelled together as a team,” forward Joe Zappala ’06 said. “At the beginning of the year when we were in a rut, we had a talk after one of the games in the locker room and just made it clear that we will be good and are a good team. We weren’t getting many bounces or having things go our way, but they would eventually, as long as we kept working day in and day out.”
The Bulldogs resumed play on the road against Minnesota St. Mankato (5-11-4) on Dec. 27, skating to a 2-2 tie. The story of the game was the return of junior star Brad Mills ’07, who had sat out the previous two games with a minor injury. Mills quickly reasserted his role as one of Yale’s premier scorers, netting both goals for the Elis. And while their inability to execute on five power plays prohibited the Bulldogs from securing the win, the tie against a solid Mankato team was another indicator that Yale was making strides toward being a more complete squad.
But the progression took a step backward when the Bulldogs fell to Nebraska-Omaha (11-10-1) on New Year’s Eve, 3-2, in overtime. The Elis again looked sharp early on by skating to a 2-1 lead against the then-No. 14 Mavericks. But Nebraska forward Bryan Marshall slipped the puck past goalie Alec Richards ’09 with just 34 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.
The Mavericks quickly grabbed hold of momentum on their home ice and controlled play against the deflated Bulldog squad. Marshall made the comeback official with his second score of the game early in the extra frame. The bitter lost spoiled an otherwise dominating 32-save performance by Richards.
Defender Brennan Turner ’09 said that the tough loss serves as a reminder for the Elis that they still have room to mature as a team.
“We learned that we can never let off a team, even when there’s only a couple seconds left in the period, game et cetera,” he said. “We deserved to win that game and when an ‘expect-to-win’ mentality isn’t there for the full 60 minutes, the results are exactly what happened in Nebraska.”
But while the games against Mankato and Nebraska illustrated the Bulldogs’ potential, it was their latest two contests that have Eli fans and ECAC opponents turning heads. After dominating ECAC bottom-dwelling Princeton, 6-1, on Friday in New Jersey, Yale completed the weekend sweep, downing Quinnipiac, 4-3, at home Sunday.
The Eli offense flashed a balanced attack as six different Bulldogs scored against the Tigers’ goalie, Eric Leroux, who had helped lead Princeton over two-time defending national champion then-No. 12 University of Denver on Dec. 30. Blair Yaworski ’08 and Bill LeClerc ’07 led the way with three points apiece as Yale rebounded from a rough first period and scored six consecutive goals to close out the game. Despite allowing an early goal, Yale’s most valuable player was again freshman keeper Richards, who stopped 29 out of 30 shots.
Yale capped off its weekend by edging out Quinnipac, 4-3, in the first-ever meeting between the intrastate rivals. The Bulldogs again found themselves on the short end of an early deficit, trailing, 1-0, in the first period. But the Eli attack took over by scoring three straight times before holding on for the slim one-score victory.
The first goal came off a well-executed power-play possession, something that has troubled the Bulldogs all season, when Mills found Bill Hristovski ’06 for the quick equalizer. Later, with just 39 seconds left in the first period, Jean-Francois Boucher ’08 added another power-play goal to make it 2-1. Boucher, who later added an assist, has carried the offense as of late, scoring at least one point in 10 straight contests.
After the Bobcats tied the game, 3-3, LeClerc continued his scoring ways and salvaged the victory for the Bulldogs. Though the Bobcats had the first 14 shots on goal in the third period, the Elis tallied a season-high third power-play goal of the game when LeClerc rifled a shot past goalie Bud Fisher with seven minutes left in regulation.
Despite being outshot, 40-22, the Bulldogs’ ability to execute on three out of four power-play opportunities provided them with the necessary edge. But perhaps more crucial was another great performance in the net from Richards.
After sharing time with incumbent starters Josh Gartner ’06 and Matt Modelski ’07 to start the season, the rookie sensation has established himself as the clear No. 1 starter. Richards has averaged over 35 saves per game in the last six contests, while allowing an average of just two goals each outing. He is 4-1-1 during that span.
While the Bulldogs suffered a tough first half of the season, they entered their break on a high note after wins against ECAC leaders Harvard and Brown. The question was whether or not the streaky Elis could carry momentum through the break and build off the success. But after extending their ECAC win streak to four games, the Bulldogs may have eliminated any doubts that they would regress in the second half of the season.
Mills said the key to continuing their turnaround is health and steady improvement of the rookie class.
“Injuries plagued the team in the first half,” he said. “[Because of the injuries to starters] our freshmen have gained a lot of experience over the first half and that should translate into even more success during the remainder of the season.”
After losing its first six games of league play, Yale is suddenly the hottest team in the ECAC. Perhaps most importantly, the Eli players have given their loyal fan base a reason to be optimistic — a sentiment that has been foreign to the Yale faithful in recent years.
“Everyone is playing with confidence now and we all know as a group that we can succeed and compete,” Zappala said. “It is going to be a fun ride the rest of the way out.”