Senior Weekend begins tonight at Ingalls Rink, but the men’s hockey team is hoping that these games won’t be its last at the Whale this season.
The Bulldogs (12-13-0, 8-10-0 ECAC) continue their topsy-turvy ride this weekend with two pivotal home games against Vermont (11-13-2, 7-9-2) tonight and Dartmouth (12-10-3, 9-6-3) tomorrow.
Yale currently sits in a seventh-place tie with Vermont amidst the stormy seas of the ECAC, while the Big Green rides the conference’s upper wave, tied with Harvard for fourth place, five points ahead of the Bulldogs and Catamounts.
The Bulldogs have been lurking in the middle of the pack for weeks now, but the window of opportunity to claim home ice is quickly narrowing.
“Somebody’s got to make a move,” Yale goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 said. “And it’s got to be us.”
If the Elis are going to do that, they will have to break the “Friday jinx” that has plagued them of late. Yale has not won a game on a Friday since Jan. 12 against Brown.
“The first few shifts are going to be key,” Eli forward Luke Earl ’02 said. “It’s kind of a mental thing — if we come out flat, it’ll be like ‘here we go again.'”
The first few shifts might also be all it takes for one Bulldog to make history.
Hobey Baker candidate Jeff Hamilton ’01 comes into the game with 159 career points, just one behind Mark Kaufmann ’93, Yale’s all-time leading scorer.
Vermont shut out Hamilton, currently the nation’s 11th leading scorer with 41 points, in its 5-2 victory the first time the ‘Cats and ‘Dogs tangled this year, but things have changed a lot for both clubs since then.
The Vermont win came in the midst of a span where it won 10 of its first 15, but the Catamounts have won only two of 15 games since then.
“We lost three games in a row in overtime in January, and we just haven’t been scoring goals,” Vermont’s senior goaltender Andrew Allen said. “We’ve really been struggling to win close games.”
Vermont was swept by Colgate and Cornell last weekend, dropping it to a seventh-place tie, its lowest ECAC ranking of the season.
But that has just made the Catamounts even more bloodthirsty.
“This is a huge weekend,” Vermont senior captain Jerry Gernander said. “We think of each game as a four-point swing — either we get two points and [our opponent] loses two, or vice versa.”
The Catamounts have a couple of key scoring threats in Jean-Francois Caudron and Graham Mink, and play a open style like the Bulldogs.
“They’re fast and small and play a lot of offense in transition,” Earl said. “They’re very similar to us, which means that it should be a pretty wide open game.”
Vermont also has one of the league’s top netminders in Allen, who enters the game with a .922 save percentage and 2.36 GAA.
Allen will have his hands full with Yale’s top line of Hamilton, captain Ben Stafford ’01 and Nick Deschenes ’03, who have accounted for 42 of the Elis’ 77 goals this year.
Eli head coach Tim Taylor shook up the lines in last Saturday’s 6-3 win over Rensselaer, but he is not sure if he will keep the changes tonight.
Regardless of whom Taylor slates for top-line duty, the Eli skaters will have to be at the top of their game on Saturday against Dartmouth, one of the hottest teams in the league.
The Big Green has picked up seven points in its last eight games, parlaying offensive firepower and stiff goaltending into three wins and a tie.
The Elis knocked off Dartmouth in a 5-4 shootout earlier this season in Hanover, but the Bulldogs and Big Green have become notorious for battling each other hard ever since the series started 174 games ago, during the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
“They’re a stick team for us to play,” Lombard said. “Nothing ever comes easily against them. They’re a resilient team that plays with a lot of confidence.”
Junior forward Mike Maturo, a high school teammate of Lombard, leads the Big Green offense with 26 points in 25 games.
While Dartmouth lacks another big scoring threat, they have a number of workmanlike players who can get the job done.
“Our key all season has been hard work,” Maturo said. “As long as we get the puck in deep on their defense and put pressure on them, we feel confident that we will be able to create some opportunities offensively.”
Sophomore Nick Boucher has strapped the pads on for the Big Green almost every game this season, posting a 12-8-3 record and a 2.45 GAA.
The Bulldogs almost certainly have to win three out of their last four, and might have to run the table if they want to earn home ice. It is a daunting task, but with Brown on the docket next weekend, it is certainly possible if the Blue can engineer a sweep this weekend.
If they don’t earn home ice, though, Saturday’s game against Dartmouth will be the farewell for Yale’s seven seniors, the last links to Yale’s greatest team ever — the 1997-98 ECAC champions.