In a sport dominated by Goliaths, the men’s hockey team often looks like a bunch of Davids.
That is, until they skate by you.
A major reason for Yale’s (13-5-1, 8-3-1 ECAC) success so far this season has been the distinct style of play favored by head coach Keith Allain that emphasizes speed and aggressive defense.
“We try to play a high tempo, high pressure style of hockey,” Allain said in an interview. “It’s important to take away time and space from the other team when they have the puck. We like to go into transition when we get it and force the attack.”
Two important statistical categories attest to the success of Allain’s aggressive system: shots on goal and goals per game.
The Bulldogs have consistently outshot their opponents this season, with an average of 13 more shots per game, and rank No. 10 in Division I Hockey with 3.47 goals per game — enough for first in the ECAC.
Yale’s aggressive forecheck has been crucial to their overwhelming advantage in shots on goal in almost every game they have played so far this season. Eli forwards use their speed to pressure opposing defensemen into turning over the puck, which enables the Bulldogs to keep the puck away from their defensive zone and pile shots — and goals — up on their opponents.
And when the opposing team does succeed in bringing the puck into their offensive zone, Eli forwards have the ability to transition quickly into their defensive zone.
Yet this aggressive forecheck does demand a certain amount of endurance, and preparation.
“We’re always just skating and skating,” captain right-winger Matt Nelson ’09 said. “We’re definitely one of the most conditioned teams. We get used to the style of play, though, and it works.”
For this reason, Allain emphasized that besides speed, his program looks for competitive, hard-working players to play a fun, yet demanding style of hockey.
Luckily for the players, four strong lines give them the opportunity to rest and re-fuel for their demanding shifts.
“He plays four lines, and he kind of has to because of the kind of style we play,” center Brian O’Neill ’12 said of Allain. “It is an up and down game, but it doesn’t get too tiring because he rotates the lines.”
The effectiveness of Yale’s speed was on display last weekend, in both their 4-3 victory over No. 3 Cornell and their dramatic third period comeback victory over Colgate.
The Bulldogs took advantage of their speed by scoring three of their four goals in 4-on-4 situations against a slower, more physical Cornell squad last Friday. Since there were fewer bodies on the ice during such situations, Yale players had more room to navigate and could escape the physicality of Cornell defensemen.
And according to O’Neill, Yale’s speed eventually paid dividends in the final period against Colgate.
“Speed definitely helps because every line can skate, which wears down teams, especially late in games,” he said. “Colgate’s a pretty good example of that.”
Yet with the all the focus on the style of play he prefers, Allain was quick to give credit to his players.
“It’s not the system or the style we play, it’s the people we’re playing,” he said. “And we have good people right now.”
One thing is for sure: From what has been seen so far this season, Allain’s players show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.