This weekend was the Elis’ chance to go up against two of the nation’s top five defenses. It was their chance to prove they could play with strength as well as with speed. And, perhaps most of all, it was the chance for Yale (10–1, 6–0 ECAC) to earn a No. 1 national ranking — an unprecedented feat in the history of the program’s 116-year history.
The Bulldogs did all of those things with two victories over the weekend and now stand atop both national polls as the No. 1 team in the country.
Still, the Bulldogs have their eyes set on a national championship and say that they are looking beyond the polls.
“I don’t think the ranking will make us more complacent,” defenseman Nick Jaskowiak ’12 said. “Our goals are larger than [midseason No. 1], so we have to stay focused.”
On Friday, the Elis stood strong against a Rensselaer Polytechnic rally and defeated the then No. 15/16 Engineers, 4–2. On Sunday, they dominated both ends of the ice en route to a 5–0 victory over No. 13 Union.
As Yale won on their home ice, another team called the Bulldogs fared less well, allowing the Elis to jump past them in this week’s polls. University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), which had held the nation’s top ranking since Nov. 15, fell to then-No. 10 Denver at home on Friday. They rebounded with a narrow Saturday win, but the damage had already been done.
UMD had received 82 of 83 first place votes in the two major national hockey polls last week. This week, they earned only 22. Yale took most of the rest of the first-place votes, and now stands as No. 1 in both polls.
Head coach Keith Allain ’80 and members of the team are quick to downplay the meaning of the ranking.
Allain deflected a barrage of questions about the possibility of No. 1 after Sunday’s game and said that the team had not discussed its national standing this season.
Forward Chad Ziegler ’12 was more forthcoming.
“We’re happy with [the ranking], but definitely not satisfied,” he said after the polls had been released.
That mentality was echoed from the top of the Yale Athletics totem pole.
“One of the goals of this team is to be number one at the end of the Frozen Four,” said Senior Associate Athletic Director Wayne Dean, who oversees hockey. “This is a step in the right direction.”
It is only a step because more than half the season remains to be played. No amount of regular season success matters if a team fades down the stretch or collapses in the NCAA tournament. April rankings, not December ones, are written in the record books.
The Bulldogs showed flashes of the talent it might take to go deep into the national tournament this weekend. The team, which is known for its quick, high-powered offense, showcased its depth and skill, stopping the puck in its two wins.
Goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 led a stellar Yale defense by stopping 45 of the 47 shots he faced over the weekend and earning the team’s first shutout since March 2009. Rondeau’s two wins give him a perfect 9–0 record this season.
“He’s been playing phenomenally lately, and if he keeps that up, it makes the defensemen’s job easy,” said Jaskowiak, who had his first goal of the season in the Union game. “It’s a great confidence booster for our team.”
The goalie’s dependable play, as well as his consistent presence between the pipes, mark a departure from last season, when Yale’s situation in goal was always a question mark. Allain rotated four goalies — none of whom finished with a save percentage higher than .900 — in net over the course of that season. This year, Rondeau has played all but two of the Elis’ games and registered a solid .926 save percentage.
Yale also shone in front of Rondeau over the weekend. At no point was that more apparent than the two full minutes late in the second period against Union that Yale spent down two men.
Yale was up 2–0, but Union had the chance to narrow the deficit, or even tie the game, when Andrew Miller ’13 and Brian O’Neill ’12 were sent off for high-sticking and tripping, respectively, with 2:39 left in the frame, giving Union a five-on-three.
Allain dispatched Mike Matczak ’11, Denny Kearney ’11, and Jimmy Martin ’11 to stand against the best offense Union could muster. And at 1:41, Rondeau and the trio weathered the onslaught without a break. The crowd rose for a thunderous standing ovation when Rondeau was finally able to cover up and stop play, and thundered once more when the penalty ended and the teams returned to even strength.
Yale, which headed to the locker room to more cheers when the period ended 30 seconds later, rode the momentum from that penalty kill to a murderous third period in which it put the game out of reach with three more goals.
Miller and O’Neill did more against Union than just earn concurrent penalties. On the first night of the season in which top Yale scorers Broc Little ’11 and Denny Kearney ’11 failed to find the back of the net, the two younger forwards, along with linemate Chris Cahill ’11, combined for 10 points. Cahill led the charge with two goals, and Miller had four assists.
The line opened the scoring in the first period when O’Neill one-timed a pass from Miller at a difficult angle behind star Union goalie Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid entered the Yale game with the nation’s fourth best goals against average, and left New Haven with the ninth best.
Jaskowiak widened the lead in the second when he took a feed from Miller and then buried a bullet of a wrist shot from the slot past Kinkaid. Cahill put the game away with two third period goals of very different stripes — a flashy wrist shot on a two-on-one rush and a hard-won tally off a rebound minutes later.
Miller assisted both those goals. He had been a hero once already that weekend, when his power play marker midway through the third period proved to be the death knell of RPI’s fight back from a two-goal deficit.
RPI was able to contain Yale for long stretches by playing a physical game and preventing the Bulldogs from taking their customary number of shots. Yale managed only 24 shots against RPI, compared to 40 against Union.
“Union really focuses on finishing their checks and playing a more physical game,” Cahill said. “Union plays a little more similar to us, a little more open.”
The Bulldogs’ final game before their winter break will be a non-conference contest against Vermont, which ousted Yale from the NCAA Tournament two years ago. The puck drops at 7 p.m.