Amid the incessant buzz that now pervades Ingalls Rink on weekends when the men’s hockey team is at home, it is beginning to look like there is something truly special about this season.
With their second straight flawless home-stand, the No. 14 Bulldogs (17-5-1, 12-3-1 ECAC) defeated Ivy rivals Harvard and No. 19 Dartmouth in a pair of raucous sellouts at Ingalls Rink this weekend. In doing so, Yale gained sole possession of first place in the ECAC standings.
Right defenseman Mike Matzcak ’11 led the Elis with a pair of power play goals in a 5-1 domination of the Crimson (5-13-4, 5-7-4) on Friday night, while center Kevin Limbert ’12 added a goal and three assists of his own. Left winger Denny Kearney ’11, captain and right winger Matt Nelson ’09 and right winger Sean Backman ’10 all scored in a close 3-1 victory against the Big Green (12-8-3, 9-5-2) on Saturday — a game that ended ugly.
Alec Richards ’09, who by now seems to have solidified his position as the team’s starting goaltender, made 14 saves against the Crimson and had 36 stops in an impressive performance against Dartmouth.
Harvard-Yale is always an intense rivalry no matter the sport, but it was the end of the Dartmouth contest that stole the show this weekend at Ingalls.
After Backman solidified a Yale victory with an empty-netter with 20 seconds left in the game, the junior forward was checked into the back boards by Dartmouth defenseman Joe Stejskal in what Backman later called a “cheap shot.”
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Instantly, every player on the ice — save Richards, who remained in his net on the opposite side of the ice — began to brawl, with several players even dropping their gloves, a rare sight in college hockey. The hopelessly outsized referees struggled to break the players up; when order was eventually restored, four 10-minute major misconduct penalties were given, and Dartmouth defenseman Evan Stephens was escorted off the ice as boos rained down from the riled-up crowd.
Although the outcome of the contest had already been decided, the sellout crowd at Ingalls remained in the rink and on the edge of their seats until the final whistle blew.
Tensions almost flared up again as the two teams shook hands, with the head coaches even exchanging what seemed to be some less-than-friendly words.
But hockey had been played prior to the late-game eruption. And it was darn good hockey, for that matter.
The visitors came out strong out of the gates, outshooting Yale in the first period and opening the scoring with a power play goal with two minutes remaining in the frame.
Stejskal took a pass from Stephens off the face-off on a 5-on-3 situation and from the top of the left circle blasted a slapshot into the upper left corner of Richards’ net.
The Big Green effectively took advantage of their size by dominating the undersized Bulldogs with physical play throughout the period, preventing the home team from getting into an offensive rhythm.
“It was not a great start for us; I don’t know if it was as much us as it was them,” head coach Keith Allain said.
But the Bulldogs came out firing in the second period, outshooting Dartmouth 20-7 and scoring two goals to reclaim the lead.
“Harvard-Yale is a big game, but to do it again the next night is not always an easy thing,” Backman said. “Once we got into the rhythm of the game, though, we started playing Yale Hockey.”
And as fanshave seen so far this year, “Yale Hockey” is very hard to beat.
Kearney, a native of Hanover, N.H., tied things up for the Elis when he picked up a Ken Trentowski ’11 shot that had deflected off right winger Broc Little ’11 and wristed the rebound into the open right side of the net at 6:21. Despite being friends with several players on the Dartmouth team, Kearney seemed to have been a target of the Big Green’s physical play, especially after referees whistled plays dead.
Following a pair of grade-A scoring chances for both teams midway through the period and a string of no-penalty calls that garnered boos from the home crowd, Nelson gave his team the lead at 16:49 on a delayed penalty. Center Brendan Mason ’11 emerged from the left-side boards with the puck, feeding Nelson in front of the net for a five-hole goal.
The Bulldogs looked confident with the lead in the final frame, preventing the visitors from seeing too many quality chances. When Dartmouth did manage to break through, Richards, who has gotten the win in Yale’s last four games, played solidly in goal.
“We’re learning how to win games as a team,” he said. “To be a good hockey team, you have to win close games.”
For all the anticipation leading up to Friday night’s game against Harvard, it was a one-sided affair.
Special teams were the story for the Elis in their 5-1 victory, as they capitalized on four of their six man-advantages and blanked their opponents on all three of their power play opportunities.
“[Our special teams] were huge,” Allain said. “We were concerned about Harvard’s power play before the game. Our power play connected, that was a huge part of the game for us,” he added.
During the week, the team had practiced new looks on the power play and it paid off, as the Bulldogs had their highest output of power play goals all season.
Outshooting the Crimson by 35 definitely did not hurt Yale’s chances either. Fueled by their ever-aggressive forecheck, the Bulldogs kept the puck in the offensive zone for much of the game as they piled shots up on Harvard freshman netminder Matt Hoyle. If not for a strong 45-save performance by Hoyle, the Elis would have surely made the score even more lopsided than it already was.
The Bulldogs came out strong in front of a packed crowd at Ingalls Rink, which was so full there were layers of fans standing all around the rink for the entirety of the game.
Despite being outshot 17-2 in the first period, the Crimson scored on one of their two shots and only trailed 2-1 after the end of the period.
Yale had a variety of quality chances in the second frame but did not increase its lead until the end of the period, when Kearney redirected a Limbert shot past Hoyle.
The home team stepped up the offensive pressure in the final frame, and Matzcak’s second goal of the contest effectively put the game out of reach for the Crimson. From about the same spot on the ice as his first goal, Matzcak took a pass from Limbert and wristed a long-distance effort into the upper-right corner of the net to give his team a 4-1 advantage at 10:28.
“It didn’t feel safe until we got the fourth goal — they are a dangerous team,” Allain said of the Crimson, who were ranked No. 18 in the nation heading into the season.
Little’s power play goal with less than two minutes on the clock was just icing on the cake.
This was the team’s first game since left defenseman Tom Dignard ’10, arguably one of the ECAC’s best all-around defenseman, suffered a season-ending injury against Quinnipiac on Jan. 31.
“You can’t replace Digs,” Allain said of Dignard, who leads the ECAC in points per game for defensemen. “But I think they’re playing for him in a way.”
The team acknowledged the loss of Dignard prior to the game, and although Matzcak said it would be impossible to replace his contribution to the team, the defense knew it had to step up as a collective whole to pick up the slack.
The Bulldogs have now won six straight conference games. Their seven-game unbeaten streak is tied for first in the nation. With the victory against Dartmouth, they clinched at least a share of the Ivy League championship. But more importantly, Yale moved past No. 5 Cornell — which lost to Princeton, 2-1, on Saturday — into sole possession of first place in the ECAC.
The Elis will look to keep things rolling in conference play this weekend as they travel to New York to face Union and RPI.