It is easy to predict that this weekend’s games between the men’s ice hockey team and No. 12 Ohio State will be a high-scoring affair. The real story, however, lies between the pipes.
The Bulldogs (5-10-2, 5-5-2 ECAC) close out their non-conference schedule in Ohio against the Buckeyes (13-7-2), who are the fourth nationally ranked opponent the Bulldogs have faced in their non-conference schedule. Yale goalie Dan Lombard ’02 and the newly revamped front line of captain Luke Earl ’02 and wingers Nick Deschenes ’03 and Chris Higgins ’05 will anchor the Bulldogs, while the sophomore threesome of netminder Mike Betz and centers Dave Steckel and R.J. Umburger will lead the Buckeyes into battle.
Higgins is the catalyst of the Eli offense. He was named ECAC player of the week Jan. 13 and is rated the fifth highest U.S. college prospect for the 2002 draft. Higgins will most likely match up against Umburger, who was picked in the first round of the NHL entry draft last year. The game could become a shootout if these two players heat up.
But the offensive fireworks could be put on hold as Lombard, who has a 2.30 goals against average, leads a Yale defense that is ranked third in the ECAC. Betz will protect the opposing goal and try to improve upon his 1.96 goals-against average.
“I think it’s a great personal challenge,” Lombard said. “You know [Betz] is going to make some big saves, and I think it will help me get in the game. It’s hard to boil a game to a one-on-one goalie contest, but when you’re playing a goalie with such a good reputation, it makes it a lot more exciting.”
The Bulldogs and Buckeyes last met in 1998 when Ohio State dealt the Elis a 4-0 loss in the NCAA West Regional qualifier. At the time, the Bulldogs were without lead scorer Jeff Hamilton ’01, who was injured in the ECAC finals.
This time, Higgins leads the Bulldogs in points and will play on the top line. After extensive offensive drilling this week, head coach Tim Taylor expects the Eli offense to rebound from their 4-3 loss to Harvard Jan. 13.
“We’ve worked on offense a lot this week because that’s always been a problem for us,” Taylor said. “Hopefully, it will pay off when we’re attacking the net.”
After giving up two power-play goals in the third period against Harvard (9-6-3, 8-3-2 ECAC), Lombard is looking to avoid a repeat of his penalty-kill performance.
“I was too much of a backboard,” Lombard said. “We know we’re going to give up shots on the penalty kill. I just want to make it one shot instead of rebound after rebound.”
If Lombard wants to improve his play on the penalty kill, he will have to do it without defenseman Bryan Freeman ’04, who is still out with an ankle sprain he suffered at the Silverado Shootout tournament Dec. 28.
While Taylor has worked with the squad this week to improve their passing and aggressive play on offense, defense remains the primary focus for a Bulldog squad that will have its hands full this weekend.
“We are one of the best defensive teams in the conference,” Taylor said. “If we can slow [the Buckeyes] down, then we should be in good shape.”