When opportunity knocked at the Whale this weekend, the men’s hockey team answered the door.
The Bulldogs (12-9-4, 8-6-4 ECAC) pulled off their first sweep of the season in dramatic fashion, dealing losses to St. Lawrence (10-16-4, 5-11-2) and No. 11 Clarkson (17-10-3, 12-4-2), one of the top duos in the competitive ECAC.
Rebounding from tough back-to-back losses the weekend before, the Elis capitalized on key opportunities and solid special-teams play to earn four points in the conference and guarantee home ice in the event that they do not finish high enough to get a bye in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.
“It is a terrific four points because we played two quality teams and we hadn’t had a sweep all year,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said after the Clarkson game.
Friday night, the Bulldogs overcame a 2-0 deficit in a game featuring two shorthanded goals and three lead changes. Blair Yaworski ’08 led the Eli attack with two goals in the 4-3 win, while Mark Arcobello ’10 and Broc Little ’11 each added one.
In the opening period, the Saints surged ahead with back-to-back scores in the first 10 minutes of play. The prospects seemed bleak for the Bulldogs, as the Saints — who converted their first powerplay opportunity at 7:57 — earned another man advantage at 10:44 when Arcobello was called on a penalty for hitting from behind. But just 12 seconds after the penalty kill began, Yaworski stole the puck and blasted it into the back of the net, cutting SLU’s lead to one with his first shorthanded tally of the year.
Yaworski’s goal provided a much-needed change of momentum for the Bulldogs, who could have been facing a three-goal deficit but instead pulled within one and then knotted the score on a goal by Arcobello with less than a minute left in the period.
“The first 10 minutes of the game, we were fighting the puck a little, but the team seemed to relax after our first goal,” Yaworski said.
The Saints had some good opportunities to pull ahead early in the second period, but the Bulldogs continued their season-long habit of superb penalty killing, thwarting the visitors on two powerplay chances, including a 60-second two-man advantage. The game heated up at 12:32, however, when the Saints scored their own shorthanded goal to reclaim the lead, 3-2. But the Bulldogs got the equalizer during the same penalty, as Yaworski took a feed from Little and one-timed it into the back of the net less than a minute later.
The Elis then pulled ahead for the first time of the night with 16 seconds left in the middle frame, going into the final break with a 4-3 edge thanks to a goal by Little. Little’s tally was the only even-strength goal the Bulldogs put up on a night when special-teams play was the crucial factor. For the first time all season, the Elis had a 100-percent conversion rate on the powerplay, going 2-2 while they held St. Lawrence to just one goal out of six chances with the man advantage.
The Bulldogs put on an equally exciting show the next night as they raced past ECAC frontrunner Clarkson, 5-2. The win completed the Elis’ first weekend sweep since November 2006 and marked their first victory over the Golden Knights since the 2004-’05 season.
Perhaps still riding the momentum from their win the previous night, the Bulldogs exploded with energy from the opening whistle, building up a two-goal lead in the first five minutes of the game. Forwards Matthew Thomey ’08 and Backman scored less than 60 seconds apart to give the Elis a lead that they would hold on to for the next 15 minutes.
But the Golden Knights surged back, scoring late in the first period and then early in the second to knot the score at 2-2. The two squads skirmished for the rest of the frame, but neither could get an edge heading into the final period of play.
The Bulldogs broke the deadlock with 7:34 left on the scoreboard, when Backman followed up on a deflected shot by blueliner Tom Dignard ’10 — he said the puck just popped right out to him. The crowd rose to its feet as the lamp over Clarkson goalie David Leggio’s head lit up. Backman threw his fists in the air before his cheering teammates engulfed their leading scorer in a celebratory huddle.
Two minutes later, left winger Brendan Mason ’11 tipped a crossing feed from Jean-Francois Boucher ’08 over Leggio’s shoulder, sending the Bulldog bench into a frenzy yet again as the puck sailed into the back of the net.
The Golden Knights, however, continued to fight back in the remaining five minutes. When the Elis were called for a penalty with 3:15 remaining, the visitors pulled Leggio from the ice for a two-skater advantage.
But the strategy backfired, as the Bulldog penalty kill unit would not allow Clarkson an opening. Twenty seconds after the penalty expired, forward Chris Cahill ’10 found himself open on the Golden Knights’ side of the ice and easily deposited the puck in the back of the empty net to end any hopes of a Clarkson comeback.
Yale netminder Billy Blase ’10 played a crucial role in the victory, coming up with a career-high 36 stops as the Golden Knights outshot the Bulldogs by 10. With 59 stops this past weekend, he broke the 500-mark in total saves this season.
The Bulldogs hit the road for the final time in the regular season next weekend as they take on rivals Harvard and Dartmouth. With this weekend’s wins, the Bulldogs have guaranteed a high enough finish for home ice in the first round of the ECAC playoffs, so they will now be in the hunt for an elusive first-round bye if they can rise from their current position in fifth into the top four.