Heading into the quarterfinals as the top seed in the ECAC Tournament, the men’s hockey team is in the exact same position it was in at this time last year. But unlike last season, they will be without star right winger Sean Backman ’10.
Backman, who was is fourth all-time in career goals for Yale, injured his foot Sunday, a day after the Elis finished their regular season at Quinnipiac and is “out indefinitely,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said in an e-mail. Allain declined to give the cause of the injury. Backman did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
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“In order to protect our student athletes’ safety and privacy, we never discuss the specifics of player injuries,” Allain wrote.
When asked how the team responded to the news of Backman’s injury, Allain said the team reacted proactively.
“[The players said] ‘OK, let’s get to work.’ Our guys understand that there will always be obstacles to overcome in order to achieve success — this is just one more.”
Despite the setback, with last season under their belts, the Elis still expect another ECAC championship and a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“We have higher expectations this year for our team,” left winger Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “We’re more experienced than we were last year.”
As the top seed in the tournament, the Bulldogs are one of the four teams to have earned a first-round bye and will face the lowest seed to advance past the first round, which will be played this weekend.
All year long the No. 5 Bulldogs have embraced their quick, aggressive style and watched the shots — and goals — pile up. Last year Yale had an average of 3.32 goals and 35.7 shots on goal per game. This year the Elis have improved those stats to 4.24 and 40.2, respectively.
“It’s been all about a focus on putting shots on the net as opposed to looking to pass,” left winger Denny Kearney ’11 said. “Our power play has really emerged as a strong part of our game, too.”
In addition to overall offense, Yale’s power play scoring percentage has risen from 17.7 percent last year to 24.1 percent, second in D-I.
Instead of surprising everyone like last year, the Elis have had a target on their backs all season.
And opposing goaltenders have risen to the challenge of trying to stop the nation’s highest scoring offense.
On Feb. 20, for example, Clarkson goaltender Paul Karpowich looked to be unbeatable for most of the game, stopping 42 of the first 43 Bulldog shots that came his way. It took an improbable four-goal surge — including three in 51 seconds — before the Bulldogs could earn the overtime victory over the ECAC’s last-place team.
Allain, a former goaltender himself, said he suspects opposing goalies like the opportunity to prove themselves against Yale.
“I was a goalie myself, and I enjoyed facing a lot of shots,” Allain said. “You’re in the game, and you feel like you’re part of it. These are all competitive people and competitive people like those kinds of situations for sure.”
The Elis’ offense has undoubtedly improved, but all of these aggressive changes might have come at the cost of their defense.
Last year the Bulldogs were first in the nation with an 89.8 percent penalty kill and 10th in scoring defense, but now Yale ranks 30th and 34th in these respective categories. Part of the reason for this change is the loss of All-ECAC goaltender Alec Richards ’10, who had four shutouts last season.
This year, Allain has not elected a chief goaltender, instead giving frequent playing time to three different netminders. None of them, however, has any shutouts this year.
Still, Allain and the players have repeatedly emphasized all season their confidence in the people in front of the net.
After having taken a lighter than normal practice week, Allain said the team will resume its normal practice schedule Sunday — but not before a team scrimmage on Saturday.
“We do it twice a year — in the beginning of the season and during the two-week break,” Kearney said. “We’re not going to be screwing around, but obviously it’ll be fun because it’s against guys you know so well.”
After that, it will be all business.
Correction: March 5, 2010
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that head coach Keith Allain ’80 said this past Saturday that no practice was scheduled for Sunday, the day right winger Sean Backman ’10 injured his foot. In fact, Allain did not say this, and practice was held Sunday.