BRIDGEPORT — Despite being predicted to finish seventh in the ECAC in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Yale men’s hockey team had a checklist of goals to accomplish this season.
Three of those four goals have already been checked off, and before the Bulldogs can hope to accomplish their final goal of winning the NCAA Tournament, they must first advance past their own regional.
Second-seeded Yale, the co-host of the 2009 East Regional at the Arena at Harbor Yard here in Bridgeport, faces third-seeded Vermont tonight at 6:30 p.m. in hopes of advancing to the regional finals Saturday night at the same time.
The Bulldogs (24-7-2, 15-5-2) have already clinched the Ivy League championship, the ECAC regular season title and the ECAC Tournament Championship for the first time in the 48-year history of the ECAC. In arguably one of their best seasons of all time, the Elis broke their overall wins record with 24.
The Elis are fresh off of their historic ECAC Tournament Championship victory over No. 9 Cornell, 5-0, on Saturday at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. The resounding victory followed a dramatic 4-3 comeback late in the game against No. 15 St. Lawrence in the conference tournament semifinals.
The Bulldogs will be looking to carry momentum from their title run into their game against the Catamounts, who were knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Tournament against No. 16 UMass-Lowell. This is the first time the Bulldogs have reached the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-’98 season.
“I think energy and emotion are key components to hockey, I think they’re big factors in the game,” head coach Keith Allain, who was named the College Hockey News Coach of the Year on Wednesday, said in an interview. “I think teams that learn how to capture that and channel it in the right way have an advantage. I expect us to play with a great deal of energy and emotion and excitement early this Friday evening.”
Captain and right winger Matt Nelson ’09 added, “I grew up watching Hockey East, so it will be nice to face off against one of those guys. I think our style matches up well against them. … As long as we play our game, I think we’ll surprise some people.”
Yale accumulated an 8-4 record before the new year but did not begin to truly heat up until the end of January, when the team began what would eventually become a 10-game unbeaten streak with an impressive road sweep in New York.
After a tight 4-2 statement victory against Cornell — which was then ranked No. 3 in the nation — the Bulldogs came back from a 4-0 third period deficit for a remarkable 5-4 overtime victory against Colgate.
These are types of games that can change a season.
“That’s when we had the feeling that we had something special, because I’ve never seen even something like that, much less been a part of it,” right defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11 said.
The winning streak was finally broken by No. 10 Princeton on Feb. 21 in a game that could have clinched the ECAC regular season championship for the Bulldogs. Yale would get their revenge the following weekend, when it defeated the Big Red, 4-2, at Ingalls Rink on Feb. 27 in order to clinch the Cleary Cup.
Right winger Sean Backman ’10 leads the team with 20 goals on the year, while left winger Denny Kearney ’11 leads the team with 22 assists. Yet in what can be seen as a testament to the team’s balanced offense, it is center Mark Arcobello ’10 and right winger Broc Little ’11 who lead the team in points, with 35 points.
“Hockey is the ultimate team sport,” Allain said. “We’re got a group that’s extremely close. I’ve never been around a group that’s closer. And we play a strong team game. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between those two or not, but I think that plays out in the balance. We have a good balanced attack. We’ve got four lines that can defend and they can all chip in and score goals. I certainly think it makes us a more difficult opponent to play.”
Arcobello was named first-team All-ECAC Hockey following the end of the regular season, while Backman was a second-team selection and Little was named to the third team. Center Brian O’Neill ’12 was named to the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team.
Goaltender Alec Richards ’09 became Yale’s regular starter in net midway through the month of January, and is currently ranked seventh in the nation with 1.97 goals against average. Richards, who set the Yale career mark for shutouts with six, was named third-team All-ECAC.
The Bulldogs have had to compensate for the loss of star defenseman Tom Dignard ’10, who suffered a season-ending injury against Quinnipiac on Jan. 31. Despite missing almost half the season, Dignard was named second-team All-ECAC.
Despite the numerous accolades accrued by the team, players frequently said the strength of their team comes from the sum of its parts. With the support the Elis receive from each other on and off the ice, they have struck a balance between the offense and defense. They have an aggressive forecheck that limits opponents’ offensive chances and an opportunistic defense that converts turnovers into offense.
Yale is ranked eighth in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Elis average 3.39 goals a game and concede only 2.18 goals per game.
The Bulldogs’ speedy skaters allow the team to neutralize larger opponents and help create high-quality scoring chances.
“I can’t think of a game this year where I don’t feel like we came ready to play and didn’t compete as hard as we could, and tried to play the game plan. That’s pretty unique throughout a hockey season, at any level. I just think it goes to the kids,” Allain said. “I’m getting a lot of credit right now, but the bottom line is, unless there are voices in the locker room echoing what I hope are my words, then none of this gets done. We’ve just got a great group now.”