In a close playoff race, all you can ask for is a chance to play your way to the top.

It doesn’t get much closer than the ECAC race this year, and with only three weeks remaining in the season the men’s hockey team’s fate rests on its own sticks. Six teams, including the eighth-place Bulldogs (11-12-0, 7-9-0 ECAC), sit within three points of one another in the middle of the logjammed conference standings. The Elis take on four of those teams over the next two weeks.

Yale can start clearing up the muddied playoff picture right away, when the Elis voyage to 10th-place Union (10-13-3, 6-9-1) tonight (7 p.m., WYBC-AM 1340) and to sixth-place Rennselaer (13-11-2, 7-7-2) tomorrow night (7 p.m., WYBC-AM 1340).

“It’s an amazingly close race between very evenly matched teams,” said Eli head coach Tim Taylor, who became Yale’s all-time winningest hockey coach last Saturday. “I think it’s going to come down to the last weekend of the season.”

After a demoralizing loss to Colgate last Friday — the Elis’ fourth-straight defeat — and a win by Colgate over Princeton the next night, the Bulldogs temporarily fell out of the playoff picture. But on Saturday goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 delivered the kind of performance that turns around seasons, shutting out then-No. 10 Cornell for more than 60 minutes before Nick Deschenes ’03 clinched the huge win with a thrilling overtime goal.

All of a sudden, the same Elis who looked to be sliding toward disaster had jumped atop the Ivy League standings and back into contention for ECAC home ice.

“There’s definitely a lot of momentum from that game,” said defenseman Joe Dart ’01, who fired the shot that Deschenes redirected to win Saturday’s game. “It was key to have a good game to get us started again.”

The momentum is particularly strong for Lombard, whose shutout Saturday was Yale’s first since he bageled Colgate at home over a year ago. The junior, who has played more minutes than any other ECAC goaltender this season, allowed just one even-strength goal all weekend.

The task for the Bulldogs this weekend will be twofold.

First, they must reenergize their offense, which has scored only three goals in the last four games.

“There’s been a little bit of an emphasis on offense this week,” Dart said. “We’re trying to focus on staying on the puck and taking care of the minor details [we need] to score goals.”

And second, they must break the curse of the road that has haunted them lately. The Elis have not won a road game since Nov. 21 at Princeton and have been outscored 16-0 in their last four contests away from the Elm City.

“We just need to get business done [on the road],” Taylor said. “The players know what’s at stake, and I’m confident that we’ll come out Friday playing the way we need to play.”

After coming out of the gates on fire, Union has slumped badly, falling to the bottom of the ECAC standings. But the Elis know the Dutchmen have the experience and the potential needed to get hot again at any time.

“They are a dangerous and experienced team,” Taylor said. “There as good as anyone in this league on a given night.”

The Dutchmen have one of the league’s top goaltenders in junior Brandon Snee and an aggressive, hard-hitting style of play. Union leads the league in penalty minutes, averaging over 20 minutes a game in the box.

The Bulldogs were able to break Snee and the Union defense at the Whale in December, pulling out three final period goals to eke out a 4-3 win.

That comeback win came a night after Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had turned a similar trick against the Elis. Yale led the whole way, but the Engineers tied it in the third period and stole a 5-4 win in overtime.

“They are a very dangerous team on offense,” Taylor said. “They have a couple of players who can really score.”

These offensive threats are junior forward Matt Murley, a Hobey Baker candidate who ranks third in the ECAC with 11 goals, and senior forward Matt Kohansky, who has posted 14 points on the season.

In addition to offensive power, RPI boasts another of the league’s top netminders in Nathan Marsters. Marsters joins Lombard and Vermont goalie Andrew Allen as the only two-time ECAC Goalie of the Week selections this season.

Saturday’s game at RPI will likely be the last at the Houston Fieldhouse for captain Ben Stafford ’01, Jeff Hamilton ’01 and Joe Dart ’01 — all of whom played in Yale’s historic 3-1 win there to clinch the Bulldogs’ only ECAC championship four years ago.

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