Looking back on this 2000-01 Yale hockey season, and at a list of the team’s game-by-game results, is like reading Patty Duke’s diary — the ups and downs have come like tidal waves.
There was the tremendous promise at the beginning of the season when the Bulldogs opened with road wins over No. 3 New Hampshire and No. 1 Boston College. It was just the start of the year and the start of a stretch in which Yale would win five of its first six matches and break into the national rankings.
But then the ranking dissolved and it seemed that so too did the lofty promise, as the Bulldogs followed their strong start by losing five of their next six games.
The middle of the Yale schedule saw two separate four-game losing streaks, which sandwiched a four-game winning streak.
Perhaps the most desperate time of all came just a week-and-a-half ago, when the Bulldogs, losers of four of their last five games, visited Union’s Achilles Rink to open a weekend road trip. That night, the Bulldogs seemed lost, and they were run emphatically out of the building.
Yet now, here we sit approaching the final weekend of the ECAC regular-season schedule, talking about everything the Bulldogs have been doing right lately and everything they might now achieve. The 5-1 loss to Union — on a night when the Bulldogs were leapfrogged in the standings by both Colgate and the Dutchmen and knocked momentarily out of the playoff picture — seems to have been forgotten.
Now Yale is most certainly on one of its characteristic upswings, having scored 19 goals in its last three games. The Bulldogs have shown that they can win games with their speed (see the 7-6 victory over Vermont), with their forecheck (see the 6-3 win over Rensselaer), and with goaltending and defense (see the 1-0 overtime win over Cornell).
And while this latest streak, in which Yale has won four of its last five games, has been exciting and has seen a remarkable outburst of offense, perhaps the most important and telling game of all was the one blemish — the Feb. 16 loss at Achilles Rink.
That night, nothing worked for the Bulldogs. Their speed was inconsequential — all night they could not back in the Union defensemen nor gain the Union zone by carrying the puck. Their coverage in their own end broke down repeatedly. Goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 was even pulled for the first time all year with his team trailing.
Perhaps most alarming of all for Yale was seeing what an opponent can do to the top line of Jeff Hamilton ’01, Ben Stafford ’01 and Nick Deschenes ’03 when the matchups are in the opponent’s favor. As the home team, the Dutchmen were allowed the last change that night, so each time Hamilton’s line stepped onto the ice, Union countered with their line of Bryan Yackel centering Jordy Federko and Nathan Gillies.
Now, here’s something we don’t hear too often: Yale’s top line was overmatched. Yackel’s line kept Yale’s big guns from breaking out of their own end with any speed, and forced turnover after turnover before Yale could reach center ice. The Bulldogs top line had nothing to cope with their counterattack, and the Yackel unit fully exploited the gaping holes in the Bulldogs’ coverage. They were the superior line, and, well, we know the final score.
That was the low point. The following night, head coach Tim Taylor overhauled the makeup of his lines, most notably replacing Deschenes on the top line with Luke Earl ’02, which, while sacrificing size, greatly upgrades the speed of the first line. So far the changes have worked out just beautifully. While Yale has scored 19 goals in the last three games, Hamilton has accounted for seven of them, including two hat tricks; Earl had nine points this past weekend.
But all of Yale’s scoring lately has masked the fact that their troubles in their own end have continued. The traffic that the Catamounts put in front of Lombard on Friday night made the slot look like a Los Angeles freeway; Yale defensemen simply could not move the forwards from in front.
This coming Friday may be Yale’s toughest test of the entire season. With home-ice advantage in the first round of the ECAC playoffs on the line, the Bulldogs will visit Harvard’s Bright Center, a building in which they have won just once in the last 21 years. Harvard, currently in fourth place and three points ahead of Yale, could conceivably drop down in the standings and lose home ice. It is also quite possible for these two ancient rivals to meet in the first round of the playoffs — where they would meet is yet to be determined.
The Crimson have a handful of very quick and talented forwards, and good size overall. The Bulldogs won the season’s first meeting between the two teams, Jan. 13 at Ingalls Rink, by backchecking, finishing body checks, and playing responsibly all over the ice.
Prior to the game at Achilles Rink, coach Taylor said that “team defense” had been a “buzz word” for the Bulldogs ever since they were swept in a pair of games at Michigan State — though when the game versus Union began, Taylor must have felt like he was speaking French.
And though they have won three straight since then, and four of their last five, the Bulldogs must refocus on team defense, which, like their wins, seems to have come in spurts this season (coincidence?). The forwards must hustle to backcheck and pick up their men, particularly as they go to the net. The defensemen must be smart both about when they pinch into the offensive zone and when they take the body (defensemen have found themselves trapped behind the play too often this season). This Yale team will not win too many 7-6 games, particularly not on the road; it must begin and end with responsible team defense.
“It’s nice to be on a little bit of a roll,” coach Taylor told Dan Fleschner of U.S. College Hockey Online after the victory over the Crimson. “Winning three consecutive games in this conference is nothing to scoff at.”
If they’re mindful of their assignments this Friday and play smart team defense, they’ll make it four. And if they make it four, you can call Ingalls Rink for playoff tickets.