Based on this weekend’s scores, the men’s hockey team still has some work to do. But if the weekend proved anything, it is that the Elis more than deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the league leaders and the national elite.
The Bulldogs (7-11-3, 6-7-2 ECACHL) dropped an overtime heartbreaker to heavily favored No. 18 Colgate (15-6-5, 11-2-1), 2-1, on Friday in Hamilton, N.Y. But the Elis rebounded the next night, coming back from a late deficit to force a 2-2 tie against No. 5 Cornell (14-4-3, 9-3-2).
Though many believed the upstart Elis were in for a huge reality check this weekend against the top two teams, the Bulldogs’ pleasantly surprising performance was not surprising for the Elis themselves, nor was it particularly pleasant. Forward Brad Mills ’07 said that while he was impressed by the team’s drive, moral victories are no longer fulfilling for a squad on the rise.
“We are disappointed in the fact that we weren’t able to win both games, but we are pleased with our effort,” Mills said. “We needed to make a few more plays in order to win both games. We are not satisfied unless we win.”
From the opening face-off, the underdog Elis showed they would not be bullied by league-leading Colgate. The Bulldogs forced the high-powered Raiders offense into a physical battle throughout the first period.
While the Elis hung tough, it seemed as if luck was on the side of the home team all night. Colgate struck first midway through the second frame when center Kyle Wilson sent an errant pass from behind the net that took a fortuitous bounce off goalie Alec Richards’ ’09 skate into the net.
But the Bulldogs silenced the Starr Rink crowd midway through the third period on a power play when forwards Mills, Jeff Hristovski ’06 and Jean-Francois Boucher ’08 showed why they are one of the most talented front lines in the ECACHL. Mills gathered the puck along the board and sent a pass behind the net to Hristovski, who then set up Boucher for the one-timer past Colgate goalie Mark Dekanich. After struggling with special teams early in the season, the Elis’ improved power-play attack has added another dimension to their offensive attack. The story was no different on Friday against Colgate, and Yale’s latest power-play goal was enough to send the game into overtime.
Yet luck was again on Colgate’s side in OT. To their credit, the Raiders did control possession in the extra frame, only to be stifled by the Eli defense. Richards found himself mired in a Colgate attack with just 90 seconds left in overtime. But as usual, Richards stayed firm and made save after save.
Yet just when it seemed as though the Bulldogs were going to skate away with a tie, the puck bounced off Richards right to an opportunistic Jon Smyth waiting in the crease. Smyth quickly spun and trickled the puck past Richards, spoiling the rookie’s sensational 36-save night.
Though disappointed, forward Joe Zappala ’06 tried not to dwell on the tough loss.
“Overtime is always a fluky thing, it’s not something to analyze,” he said. “Everyone is playing with great emotion, and sometimes the bounces go your way, sometimes they don’t.”
As if the loss weren’t painful enough, the Bulldogs had to quickly brush themselves off and prepare for their showdown against No. 5 Cornell the following night. And while the old Elis would have folded after a heartbreaking loss the previous night, the 2006 Bulldogs responded with an even better effort against the defending league champs on Saturday.
The Elis struck first late in the opening frame, when forward Blair Yaworski ’08 sent a beautiful slap shot past Cornell’s David McKee. Just minutes later Yaworski had an opportunity to silence the notoriously loud Lynah Rink crowd when he was awarded a penalty shot after being fouled on a breakaway. The sophomore from Calgary seemed to have McKee beaten with a deke to the right, but the All-American recovered and blocked Yaworski’s shot with his outstretched legs. The save not only resuscitated the nervous Cornell faithful, it also swung momentum in the Big Red’s favor.
The save seemed to breathe new life into the Cornell offense as well. The Big Red scored two straight goals in the second period to seize control of the game. Again it seemed like the young Elis were on the verge of collapsing, and again they showed their resiliency.
The Bulldogs stayed patient throughout the third period and resisted the urge to press and force the play. Opportunity came with seven minutes left in regulation. Forward Nate Jackson ’06 maneuvered around the net and slapped a quick shot off McKee’s pads. Zappala, who until this point had no shots on goal the entire weekend, rebounded the puck and banged it in the net for the equalizer.
Though the Bulldogs could not earn their first overtime win in six tries, the fact that the Elis even extended the game to sudden death illustrated Yale’s steady emergence as a legitimate league contender.
Defender Brennan Turner ’09 said Friday’s overtime loss to Colgate gave the Bulldogs the motivation they needed for the comeback against Cornell.
“After any overtime loss, it doesn’t feel good,” he said. “Especially in this league, where we don’t even get a point for an OT loss, it felt like all we did was for nothing. We didn’t want that feeling again against Cornell. We pushed hard for the last 15 minutes of the 65-minute game to go for the tie and then the win.”
While the offense could not repeat its 10-goal performance from last weekend, the Eli defense picked up the slack, relinquishing just four goals against the league’s top two teams. The performance started with the defensemen and ended with Richards. Turner said it took a team effort to slow down the Colgate and Cornell attacks.
“There was a lot better communication down low in regards to playing tough defensive hockey,” he said. “We did a really good job of keeping their shots to the outside and playing them tough below the goal-line — that can tend to wear a team down.”
Richards did the rest from there, tallying 65 saves in two games. The freshman star not only played fundamental hockey but also had his fair share of highlight-reel saves. Perhaps more impressive is that Richards and the Bulldog defense did all of this in front of two of the more hostile crowds in college hockey.
Yaworski said the fans actually energized the Elis rather than intimidate them.
“I think we fed off the atmosphere,” he said. “Lynah Rink is undoubtedly the hardest rink to play in because of their huge student body support. When 2,000 screaming students come to the rink trying to intimidate the other team, it can tame some of the best teams. [But] with a goal and a few large body checks in the first period, we were able to send a message and feed off of the atmosphere for the remainder of the game.”
Despite the unfulfilling results, the Bulldogs flashed their mettle on the road and unquestionably silenced many doubters. In the past, the Elis would have been more than content with the weekend’s performance. But the sixth place Elis are far from being satisfied or surprised by their play. And as Zappala explained, perhaps that is the most revealing fact about the surging Bulldogs.
“The best way to describe our team mentality right now would be to say we are confident again,” he said. “We are all disappointed we didn’t get more points out of this weekend. Playing the [ECAC] No. 1 and No. 2 teams on the road and not be happy about it, says something to where we are mentally right now.”