As the old adage goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. The men’s hockey team is looking at this weekend to prove that these Bulldogs still have a lot of fight left in them.
Yale (6-8-0, 4-6-0 ECAC) returns back to the friendly confines of Ingalls Rink tonight on the heels of some very inhospitable treatment at Michigan State. The No. 1 Spartans, currently riding an 18-game unbeaten streak, scored nine unanswered goals in the course of a two-night march over the Elis. But it’s time for the Bulldogs to put all of that behind them, as head coach Tim Taylor and his team turn their attention to this weekend’s key ECAC games with Brown (2-9-2, 1-7-2) and conference-leading Harvard (8-7-1, 7-3-1).
“We’re looking at these two games as our re-entry into the league race,” said Taylor, who was absent from the Yale bench against Michigan State because he was coaching the U.S. Junior National Team in Moscow.
Despite dropping six of their last seven games after a blazing 5-2 start, the Bulldogs stand sixth in the ECAC, eight points back of the Crimson. Two wins this weekend would even their all-important conference record at 6-6 and would be the first time the Elis have carried a .500 ECAC record since November.
“This is a huge weekend for us,” Eli forward Luke Earl ’02 said. “We need to get back to .500. That would be a great starting point for the stretch run.”
If the Bulldogs want to even up their record, they’re going to have to start by improving when they’re not at even-strength. Yale’s atrocious performance on the penalty kill — the team is currently killing off only 65.2% of its opponents’ chances — was exploited by the Spartans, who beat Eli goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 five times on the man-advantage.
Lombard consulted with Yale goalie coach Dave Hainesworth during the week, working to redefine Lombard’s role on the penalty kill.
“I have more of a sense of what my duty is on the penalty kill,” Lombard said. “For me, the key is always to focus and to try to come up with more big saves.”
Taylor has emphasized work on both the penalty kill and power play during practice this week, and the Eli special teams units are confident that they can turn things around in a hurry.
“First off, we just need to take fewer penalties,” said Earl, one of the team’s top penalty killers. “We need to all get on the same page and kill a few penalties in a row to get us out of the slump.”
There doesn’t seem to be a clear explanation for the Elis’ drastic demise against power plays, although the absence of tough defenseman John Gauger ’01 hurts a lot. Not having Gauger costs the Bulldogs their top defenseman and leaves them without a big body who can clear opposing players out of the Eli zone.
As much as the Bulldogs have struggled at the defensive end of the ice, they have had little more success at the other end, going goalless for six periods against the Spartans. Despite the drought, Eli forward Jeff Hamilton ’01 remains the ECAC’s leading scorer with 18 points in 10 conference games. Hamilton, a Hobey Baker Award candidate, will feel the scoring burden heavily this weekend, along with linemates Ben Stafford ’01 and Nick Deschenes ’03.
“We have to go into this weekend with confidence and the belief that we can score goals,” Taylor said.
The Bulldogs will be taking their first shot at returning to their offensive form on Friday night against ECAC cellar-dwelling Brown. The Bears picked up their only conference win last Friday with a 6-3 victory over Union. They also dropped a decision to RPI 4-1 Saturday night.
Brown’s penalty kill is one of two units that is worse that Yale’s, and the Bears have struggled to put the puck in the net as well.
Despite the Bears’ struggles, Taylor emphasizes that they must not be taken lightly.
“One of the real challenges is not to look at this as the Harvard weekend,” said Taylor, a 1963 Harvard graduate himself. “[Brown] is probably the best team with a losing record in our league.”
Taylor will turn his team’s attention to his alma mater Saturday night in what promises to be an exciting game. The first-place Crimson journey south on the strength of a Union-RPI sweep and bring one of the most explosive offenses in the nation to the Whale.
Brothers Steve and Dominic Moore key the Crimson offense. Steve earned Player of the Week honors for his six-point performance last weekend, while younger brother Dominic notched Harvard’s first hat trick in almost two years against Rensselaer.
“They’re a very wide-open team offensively,” Earl said. “They are a big test because they also check very tightly.”
Junior Peter Capouch and freshman David McCulloch team as the top defensive pairing, while senior Oliver Jonas handles duties in the crease. Jonas sports a 7-7-1 record with a 2.39 GAA and .930 save percentage.
“If they have a weakness, it’s on defense and in goal,” Taylor said. “Their forwards are so good, though, that they compensate for their weaknesses.”
The real question for the Bulldogs will be which team shows up at the Whale Friday — the team that beat New Hampshire and Boston College back-to-back, or the team that was outscored 9-0 by Michigan State?
If the answer is the former, then the Elis will be in good shape for the ECAC stretch run. If not, then it could be a long two months for Tim Taylor and company.
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