While the last two games of the men’s hockey regular season may not dramatically change the league standings, Yale’s final homestand is full of playoff implications.
After a tough road trip, the Bulldogs (8-16-3, 6-12-2 ECACHL) return home to Ingalls Rink for the season finales against Quinnipiac (16-15-1, 7-12-1) and Princeton (9-16-2, 6-12-2) this weekend. The Elis have dropped four games in a row and are winless in their last seven league outings.
Despite the recent disappointments, Yale head coach Tim Taylor said that the Bulldogs have maintained their mental strength.
“We want to finish as high as we can no matter what,” Taylor said. “I have seen no signs that they are going to quit, and they know what it takes to compete.”
Just weeks ago, Yale was comfortably ahead of both the Bobcats and Tigers. But as the Bulldogs began to fade, Quinnipiac, ninth in the ECAC, only seemed to be getting stronger. The Bobcats are 6-2-1 in their past nine games, including an impressive 3-1 win over No. 18 St. Lawrence on Feb. 4 in New Haven. The key to the Bobcats recent success has been the emergence of two talented rookies — freshmen Brian Leitch and David Marshall are one and two in scoring among ECACHL rookies. Leitch, who has 37 points on the season, is second in the entire league behind St. Lawrence star T.J. Trevelyan’s 41 points.
If this Friday’s game is anything like the first meeting between Yale and Quinnipiac, then the Ingalls faithful are in for a wild and entertaining night. The Bulldogs edged the Bobcats 4-3 during a Jan. 8 contest that saw several lead changes, ties and momentum swings. After relinquishing a 3-1 lead in the third period, the Elis finally put their cross-town rivals away when forward Bill LeClerc ’07 beat Bud Fisher with just six minutes left in regulation.
While the Bobcats are moving in the opposite direction, Princeton has shared Yale’s late season struggles. The Tigers will stumble into New Haven low on steam. Princeton has shown grit going into overtime in the past four contests. But judging by its recent record, 0-2-1 in that span, Princeton’s fatigue has overtaken its intensity with the beginning of each extra period.
Princeton’s recent struggles have little to do with offensive failures. The Tigers have averaged 3.25 goals in its past four contests. The only problem is that Princeton goalie Eric Leroux has allowed an average of four scores during that same span.
The Bulldogs are battling the opposite ailments. Freshman goalie Alec Richards ’09 allowed little more than three goals per contest during the winless road trip. But the Bulldogs offense has squandered several of Richards’ impressive performances by scoring a mere seven goals combined in that span.
Richards said the Elis will have to remain patient to get back on track.
“It’s obviously disappointing dropping game after game,” he said. “We have a talented offense … it’s just a matter of time [until] they get it going.”
Yale is looking for Richards to repeat two great showings that he had against Princeton and Quinnipiac early on in the season. After struggling in his first few games, Richards experienced a coming-out party against the Tigers on Jan. 6. The rookie sensation posted one of his best starts this season, allowing one goal and stopping 27 shots. Richards did not look back the next night against the Bobcats. Though he allowed three scores, it was Richards’ 37 saves that enabled the Bulldogs to overcome an 18-shot deficit.
But the burden falls heavily on the Yale offense. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has been plaguing the Eli attack, Taylor said he thinks road pains have contributed to the drought.
“These road trips are not easy,” Taylor said. “They wear on you and go into the next week of practice. You don’t want to blame things on outside [factors], but the road might have something to do with it.”
Though the Bulldogs can only finish as high as ninth, the final weekend is pivotal in deciding who they face in the first round of the playoffs next week. If the season ended today, Yale would travel to Union for the opening round. But the fifth through eighth seeds in the ECAC playoffs are wide open, with Harvard, Union, RPI and Clarkson all within three points of each other.
More importantly, the Elis have the perfect opportunity at home to regain momentum that has disappeared in the past month. Yale hopes to recapture some of the magic that enabled them to go unbeaten in league play in January and to rise to fifth in the ECAC.
Forward Joe Zappala ’06 said a timely home series may be just what the Elis need.
“We’ve had a couple of long road trips and it takes a toll,” Zappala said. “And now that school is picking up, too, it’s nice to go home and rejuvenate ourselves before the playoffs start.”