While freshman phenom Chris Higgins rang in 2002 with offensive fireworks and a fifth place finish with the U.S. National Team at the Junior World Championships, the men’s ice hockey team got their new year off to a slow start by dropping five of six games over winter break.

The Bulldogs (5-10-2, 5-5-2 ECAC) are now tied with Clarkson (9-7-3, 5-0-2 ECAC) for second in the ECAC, six points behind Harvard (9-6-3, 8-3-2 ECAC). Despite losing five of six games over winter break, the Bulldogs were able to remain near the top of the ECAC because four of their five losses came at the hands of non-conference foes. Without Higgins, who was at the Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic, the brilliant play of goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 and winger Ryan Steeves ’04 was not enough to prevent the Bulldogs’ four-game losing streak against their non-conference opponents.

Higgins’ return Jan. 11 made a world of difference for the Bulldogs. The top scoring line of Higgins, winger Vin Hellemeyer ’04 and captain Luke Earl ’02 accounted for nine of Yale’s 12 points in a 5-2 win over Brown (5-8-2, 4-6-2 ECAC) and two of the Bulldog’s three goals in a 4-3 loss to Harvard.

“[Higgins] gives us a lot more offense than we would have without him,” winger Jason Noe ’02 said. “We played pretty well without him, but to have him back in the lineup it provides us with an offensive spark that we needed.”

At the Silverado Shootout Dec. 28-29, the Bulldogs fell 3-2 to Minnesota-Duluth (8-15-1) and dropped the consolation game 4-3 to Miami of Ohio (9-11-1). The Elis continued their four-game slide with a 4-3 loss to No. 3 New Hampshire (15-4-2) and a 2-1 loss to No. 10 Boston College (12-8-2) before this past weekend’s contests against Brown and Harvard.

“We were a little bit rusty, but the other team was too, so that’s not an excuse,” winger Spencer Rodgers ’02 said. “Those were games we could have won, we should have won. We’re finding a way to lose, and we need to turn that around.”

The Bulldogs’ loss to Harvard Jan. 12 was emblematic of a roller coaster season that has so far featured close games with top teams. Just as in six of their previous seven outings, the Bulldogs were on the losing end of a one-goal game against the Crimson.

The Elis’ third-ranked penalty-killing unit struggled against the Crimson, who registered two power-play goals in the third period to take the lead for good. Crimson winger Tyler Kolarik opened the scoring in the third period when he found himself all alone in front of Lombard with 10 minutes remaining in the period. Kolarik wristed the puck over Lombard for his fifth goal of the season to give the Crimson a 3-2 lead.

Penalty killing was not the only problem for the Elis against the Cantabs. The swarming Crimson offense accounted for 28 shots, 12 of which came in the final frame.

“A lot of our loss to Harvard had to do with them playing well,” Noe said. “They were a tough team to beat.”

Harvard’s exceptional play continued five minutes later when winger Brent Nowak charged the net and one-timed a loose rebound past Lombard. With 40 seconds remaining in the game, Higgins tallied for the Bulldogs to bring them within a goal, but the Crimson held on for the win.

Although the Bulldogs faded in the third period, they opened the contest on top when winger Evan Wax ’03 slid a pass from the right wing that found the stick of winger Mike Klema ’04. Klema deked around goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris to put the Elis up 1-0. The Elis took the lead 2-1 after Earl found the back of the net midway through the second period, but the Bulldogs could not match Harvard’s dominant three-goal performance in the second half of the game.

The Bulldogs will return to non-conference competition this weekend when they travel to Columbus to face Ohio State in a two game series Jan. 18 and Jan. 20.

After losing five of their past six games, the Elis need to go back to basics. Yale will pay special attention to its power-play and penalty-killing units this week in preparation for the Buckeyes.

“We just have to make the game fun again,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough to come to the rink with a smile on your face when you’ve been losing. We just really have to bring our game into their building.”