Just four games remain in the regular season for the men’s hockey team, and it is in an unfamiliar place: second.
The Elis (20–5, 14–4 ECAC), who had led the ECAC in winning percentage since the first game of the season, slipped into second place last weekend by a single point when they fell to St. Lawrence. Despite a win the next night, the loss left Yale just 3–3 in its past six games. The Bulldogs will look to reprise their winning ways when they travel to Quinnipiac (13–12–5, 6–8–4) Friday night and then to New Jersey for a rare Sunday afternoon game at Princeton (14–9–2, 9–7–2).
Yale’s replacement atop the conference standings is surging No. 7 Union, winner of seven straight and eleven of its last twelve. The Dutchmen now need only to win their remaining four games to guarantee themselves the regular season championship, which Yale has won for the past two consecutive years. Despite the chance of missing out on the Cleary Cup, the Elis insist they have other priorities in mind.
“I don’t think we’re very concerned about the rankings,” said defenseman Nick Jaskowiak ’12, who missed the St. Lawrence game as he served a one-game suspension, “You know the saying, ‘It’s better to lose now than at the end of the year.’”
Indeed, although Yale is not positioned as well as it could be in the conference standings, it maintains its grip on the top spot in one very important national statistic: the Pairwise ranking.
Pairwise is an computer-based system that the NCAA uses to seed the national tournament. The national polls that currently peg Yale as the country’s third best team have no effect on selection.
Yale currently leads the Pairwise rankings by a comfortable margin over No. 1 Boston College and No. 2 North Dakota, so it is almost guaranteed a No. 1 seed in the national tournament. Only a disastrous record in the next four games or an early exit from the ECAC playoffs — as it suffered last year at the hands of Brown — could keep Yale away from the top seed, which provides an opportunity to play weaker teams in the early rounds of the tournament.
But the tournament is more than a month away. This weekend, Yale will be looking to build on its 6–3 win over Clarkson last weekend, which was its lone road win in five tries since the winter break.
“We need more of a direct attitude,” Jaskowiak said about the team’s road struggles. “Instead of going in with the belief that we have three periods to win a game, we need to bring more urgency.”
While Quinnipiac is a mere eight miles away, Yale will be far from the comfort of Ingalls Rink Friday night.
Quinnipiac is expecting a sold-out crowd of more than 4,000 for the game, according to the school’s athletics department. And the student body has spent the week gearing up for what it has dubbed “the game.” The Wednesday issue of the student newspaper published a list of seven cheers for the contest, including “Stick to reading” and “Let’s go Harvard.” The paper also turned the back page of the issue into a “Beat Yale” sign.
“It’s going to be a crazy road environment,” Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “We try to feed off the energy of opposing crowds. We see the energy on the road as positive thing, not a negative thing, and we use it to our advantage.”
Yale’s travels continue when it drives south to Princeton, but the energetic crowds might not follow — the Wall Street Journal named the Tigers’ Hobey Baker Rink the least lively rink in the country in a recent article.
But Princeton will offer a better team on paper than will Quinnipiac. Though Yale beat the Tigers by a 5–3 margin in early November, the Elis scored those goals on Alan Reynolds, who has since become Princeton’s third-string netminder. On Sunday, Yale is likely to see star freshman Sean Bonar, who boasts a slender 2.17 goals against average, in net as it seeks to sweep its season series against the Ivy League rivals.
“We would like to impose our game plan on them,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “If we work as hard as they do, we should be fine.”
Qunnipiac, too, will be working hard to beat a rival and will start a solid goaltender. Eric Hartzell, who boasts the ninth best save percentage in the country, will seek to backstop the Bobcats to a second consecutive upset home win over their crosstown rivals — Quinnipiac beat the Bulldogs, 4–3, in the last year’s regular season finale.
In order to avoid the upset, Yale will look for O’Neill, who had his first career hat trick against Clarkson last Saturday and now leads the team in scoring, to stay hot. Though O’Neill downplayed his success and said he was merely lucky to be in the right place at the right times, he and linemates Andrew Miller ’13 and Chris Cahill ’11 have been essential recently as Broc Little ’11 and Denny Kearney ’11 have struggled on the other scoring line.
The key to success this weekend, though, will be teamwork and not individual efforts, according to Allain.
“When you’re not your best, there’s one guy skating with everyone else standing around, watching,” he said. “At Clarkson, we were skating. We had all five guys skating all the time.”
Yale faces Quinnipiac at 8 p.m. Friday before taking on Princeton at 1 p.m. Sunday. The games will be televised on CPTV and ESPNU, respectively.
Konrad Coutinho and Alison Griswold contributed reporting.