Yale hockey captain Ben Stafford ’01 has spent a lot of time scratching his head over the last few weeks. So has head coach Tim Taylor and just about everyone else connected with Yale hockey. But no matter how much anyone contemplates the Elis’ bizarre 2000-01 season, the simple reality may very well be that there is no explanation for what happened.

The same Bulldogs that started the season by stunning then-No. 3 New Hampshire and current Frozen Four participant Boston College on the road also lost to doormats Colgate and Notre Dame at home.

The Elis got pasted 5-1 by lackluster Union when they had a chance to pick up ground in the standings, and lost three games to Harvard in eight days.

And yet, that same team beat league champion Clarkson and scored 19 goals in three straight late-season wins after the Union game. But that only came on the heels of a Bulldog offensive drought, where they had managed to light the lamp only five times in the previous six games.

The top four scorers in the ECAC were from two teams — Yale and St. Lawrence. But St. Lawrence went to the NCAA tournament, while Yale’s season ended in a first-round sweep at Harvard in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.

It just does not add up in so many ways for the Bulldogs, who espoused goals of playoff home ice and going to Lake Placid, N.Y., but failed to fulfill either one.

“I don’t think we met our team goals, and I regret that,” said the second-team All-Ivy forward Stafford. “I don’t think the way it ended justified the way this team can play.”

Nothing was more sour for the Bulldogs than the season-ending losses at Harvard’s Bright Center, where the Elis have now skated to a 1-19-3 record in the past two decades. Yale’s final game was a striking microcosm of its entire season — the Bulldogs started strong, played back and forth in the middle, but collapsed at the end. The crowd could almost feel the breath coming out of the Bulldogs as Harvard ran off four goals in the final period to knock Yale out of the playoffs in the first round.

“For a team that performed the way we did all season, I think the quarterfinal loss to Harvard was a bitter pill to swallow,” Yale head coach Tim Taylor said. “This team deserved a better fate.”

Indeed, an objective look at the season confirms just what Taylor said — the Bulldogs deserved a better fate this year. But when one considers the big picture, this group of players, especially the seniors, has left its mark on the program.

One does not have to look any further to see that than the last home weekend of the season, when the Bulldogs pulled off what turned out to be their last two wins of the year in dramatic fashion.

In Friday night’s 7-6 win over Vermont, senior forward Jeff Hamilton became Yale’s all-time leading scorer by scoring his 161st career point. Nick Deschenes ’03 had a hat trick, while Luke Earl ’02 picked up five points of his own. Offense was the flavor of the evening, but Dan Lombard ’02 came up huge in the final period, stoning the Catamounts for the final 18 minutes to preserve the win.

The next night, Hamilton said farewell to the Yale fans in style, notching his third hat trick of the season en route to a 6-3 win over Dartmouth. Hamilton’s two third-period goals are ones that no Yale fan at the packed Ingalls Rink will soon forget. Meanwhile, linemates Stafford and Earl each picked up three assists and Lombard made 29 saves between the pipes.

The win over the Big Green all but sealed up the Ivy League Championship, meaning that the fans got to see the first-ever group of seniors to win three Ivy League titles in four years.

“That last home weekend is going to stick with me for a long time,” Stafford said. “That’s the kind of hockey that we wanted to play all year. It was a great weekend for our team in every way.”

Aside from that weekend, a number of the individual performances this year turned heads throughout the hockey community.

First there is Hamilton, who finished the season second in the ECAC scoring race with 55 points, bringing his career total to 173. His resume boasts just about every honor a college hockey player can rack up. He is Yale’s first-ever two-time Hobey Baker Finalist, its first-ever three-time ECAC first team selection and the only Bulldog ever to be named Ivy League Player of the Year twice.

“I can say that he’s arguably the best offensive player that’s ever donned the Yale uniform,” Taylor said.

Hamilton’s record-shattering performance overshadowed an incredible year by Stafford. The Eli captain completed the rare journey from extra skater in “The Mighty Ducks” to one of the toughest and most dangerous players in the ECAC. The senior’s career-high 46 points ranked him fourth in the conference, but the way he always seemed to pull the puck out of a corner or come back to stop an odd-man rush helped the team more than any statistic could show.

Deschenes finished the season ninth in the conference with 37 points, and Earl caught fire after being moved to the top line to finish the season with 27 points — also ending the season with a seven-game goal scoring streak. Co-Ivy League Rookie of the Year Jeff Dwyer ’04 put together a great rookie campaign, posting 21 points and leading all Bulldog defensemen in scoring.

The trio of Deschenes, Earl, and Dwyer, along with a returning Lombard in goal makes next year look promising for the Bulldogs.

For the next few weeks, though, the focus will be on the group of seven seniors who will graduate in May.

Hamilton is waiting for the Hobey vote. Stafford was drafted two weeks ago by the UHL’s New Haven Knights, while several others are considering keeping their careers going after graduation.

Regardless of what happens in their future hockey careers, this group of seniors will not soon be forgotten. Four years ago they were a part of Yale’s only ECAC championship, and even though they did not go out with another one, they left a legacy that will forever hang in the rafters of Ingalls Rink.