MEN’S HOCKEY: Defense struggles as Bulldogs split

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Photo by Katherine Garvey.

In a crucial home weekend for the No. 13 Yale men’s ice hockey team, the defense failed to step up as the Elis lost 4–0 to archrival No. 4 Quinnipiac before barely holding on against ECAC doormat Princeton, 7–5.

The two-point weekend, combined with a pair of losses by both No. 11 Cornell and No. 14 Clarkson, brought the Elis (13–8–4, 8–7–3 ECAC) to within a point of fourth place in the conference.

“We need to tighten up our defense,” said captain Jesse Root ’14. “That’s the most important step. It’s going to imperative to play tighter defense, [as a] five-man unit rather than individual players.”

The final score from Friday’s game against the Bobcats (21–6–5, 11–4–3) belies the true nature of the contest. With the arena sold out and rocking, the Bulldogs came out strong. The only tally of the first period came following a face-off and a lightning-quick shot from Quinnipiac forward Cory Hibbeler.

But in the second period, it took just 18 seconds for the game to get away from the Bulldogs. A Yale turnover in its own defensive zone set up the Bobcats, and forward Sam Anas continued his stellar season by slotting the puck past Yale goaltender Alex Lyon ’17 at 7:33. Before the Elis could recover, Quinnipiac forward Connor Clifton launched a shot from deep that Lyon could not reach to extend the Bobcat lead to 3–0 at the 7:51 mark of the second period.

“It took the wind out of our sails a little bit,” said defenseman Ryan Obuchowski ’16. “When you get scored on, the next shift is always a big shift coming out, and we just kind of fell apart in that shift after. Those two shifts were a big momentum changer.”

Compared to the rivals’ first matchup of the season, Yale improved its shot differential, although it managed a tie in the earlier game. After being outshot 51–20 in early November, the Bulldogs mustered 33 shots of their own and held Quinnipiac to 36. But goaltender Michael Garteig was brilliant for the Bobcats, stopping every Eli shot en route to his fifth shutout of the season. His five shutouts are the second most in the country.

Saturday’s game against Princeton (5–20–0, 4–14–0) marked a polar opposite from Friday’s match. Just 7:41 into the first period, the Bulldogs put a tally on the board. They ended up scoring seven total goals, the most by a Yale team since March 4, 2012, also against Princeton.

After taking a three-goal lead, however, the Elis failed to close the Tigers out, with Princeton drawing within a single goal on two different occasions. It was not until a shorthanded, empty-net goal by forward Kenny Agostino ’14 with 1:31 remaining in the game that the Bulldogs pulled away for good.

“Certainly, any time your team gives up five goals the team defense can be brought into question,” defenseman Rob O’Gara ’16 said in an email. “We worked a lot in practice [yesterday] on positioning and knowing responsibilities in the zone, so hopefully this leads to stronger defensive zone play and communication in the coming weeks leading into playoffs.”

The Bulldogs’ two special teams units experienced vastly different outcomes over the weekend. The power-play unit struggled, going 0–9 over the two games, a goose egg that especially mattered in the contest against Quinnipiac. Yale failed to take advantage of a four-on-three opportunity as well as two other power plays in the second period.

Meanwhile, the penalty kill shut Quinnipiac down completely in four chances and limited Princeton to a pair of goals on five opportunities. Most importantly, however, the Bulldogs scored three shorthanded goals on Saturday, bringing their season total up to five. The goals came at important moments in the game, two of them after Princeton had pulled within a single score.

“The penalty kill has been great for the past couple of weeks,” Root said. “It was nice to get the goals [on Saturday], but we also let up two goals … It’s good to see us execute when we get the chance, but we also have to keep the puck out of the net.”

With only four regular season games and the ECAC tournament remaining before the NCAA tournament, every contest will be crucial as the Elis’ margin for error is dwindling. Yale fell from tied for 16th to 20th in the PairWise rankings, which determine the final bracket for the NCAA tournament.

But the Bulldogs have two road games remaining, and wins on the road are weighted to count more than home games in the PairWise formula, as well as a date with No. 3 Union on the horizon.

“Our goals don’t change in the last four games,” Root said. “We need to renew our focus and make sure that we get two points in each and every game.”

Yale takes its final regular-season road trip this weekend, playing a game each against Harvard and Dartmouth.

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