Yale cannot award scholarships. Ivy League regulations force it to hold fewer practices and play fewer games than other Division I schools. Better-known hockey schools like Michigan and North Dakota land the top hockey recruits.
Yet the Bulldogs are currently ranked second in the country. They are undefeated at home. They have nearly clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament.
What’s going on?
“They’re one of the top offensive teams in the country and they have a lot of weapons,” said Harvard head coach Ted Donato after his team lost to the Elis for the second time this season last Friday. “They play good defense and they’re solid in goal.”
Those offensive weapons have combined to give Yale the top-scoring attack in the nation. That production is a testament to the efforts of top scorers Broc Little ’11, Brian O’Neill ’12 and Andrew Miller ’13. But lighting the lamp at such a clip requires more than individual efforts. After all, no member of that trio earned much recruiting attention from the traditional powerhouse hockey schools.
Dartmouth goalie James Mello pinned Yale’s success on its teamwork after he allowed four goals to the Elis during his team’s Saturday night loss.
“They’re just very in sync,” he said. “At any time, they can do anything.”
Mello saw that teamwork firsthand early in the second period of his loss when Miller, O’Neill and Colin Dueck ’13 scored Yale’s second goal after a trio of quick passes on a perfectly executed three-on-one.
It’s that kind of passing that demonstrates Yale’s cohesion and danger as an offense, according to Harvard captain and defenseman Chris Huxley.
“You have to keep your head on a swivel against them,” he said. “You have to be aware of where they are. They always seem to have guys coming in late. You can’t lose them.”
Though Yale’s high-flying attack has impressed many opponents, some opposing fans think the Elis look good only because of their weak schedule. Critics point out that no ECAC team has won a national championship since Harvard captured the title in 1989.
The Elis have the opportunity each year to strengthen their schedule with nonconference games, but this year few of those opponents have impressed.
“The only thing [Yale] knows how to do is play basement dwellers and ride the pony express to the national tournament,” said commenter “collegehockeyfan” on USCHO.com after the Elis earned the No. 1 ranking. “They will then ride the bus back to Yale after round 1.”
That criticism, however, has been mostly reserved for message boards. Voters in the national polls have been impressed enough by Yale’s play to keep the team in their top five almost all season.
Despite those high rankings and the praise of their opponents, the Elis lost two consecutive games for the first time two weeks ago.
“Everyone in this league is vulnerable,” Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet said after his team’s loss. “Hockey goes in cycles, and Yale is hoping they don’t have a down cycle late this year.”
In order to avoid a down cycle, the Elis say they are focusing on basics and playing their own brand of hockey. On the floor of the hallway leading from their locker room to the ice are, in block letters, the words, “Confidence. Teamwork. Discipline. Respect. Passion. Win.”
Members of the team cite discipline and passion as two of the most important elements to their success so far this season. After every one of their losses this year, they have explained that they failed to play “Yale hockey.”
That means hardworking hockey, according to Chad Ziegler ’12, who has played most of the season on the checking line, which is tasked with shutting down opponents’ top lines.
“We like to think we’re the hardest-working team in college hockey,” he said.
His teammates echo that sentiment frequently. They want to work the hardest, skate the fastest and be the best-conditioned team in the country.
Opposing coaches tend to talk about Yale’s strategy. Union head coach Nate Leaman attributed his team’s ability to beat the Elis two weeks ago to their hard hitting and ability to prevent turnovers.
The Yale men had other priorities in mind.
“All we have to do is keep it simple,” captain Jimmy Martin ’11 said.