Few Yale fans who witnessed the men’s hockey team’s final regular season weekend last winter have forgotten it.
In two edge-of-your-seat thrillers, the Elis, who entered the weekend severely in danger of missing the ECAC playoffs, came from behind to upset both Harvard and Brown before capacity home crowds. The wins clinched the 10th and final playoff spot for the Bulldogs.
But the must-win weekend, while exciting, would never have happened if the Elis had found a similar clutch scoring touch earlier in the season. Yale was 2-13 in one-goal games last season and will need more late-game goals this winter.
This year’s team — which opens play Saturday at Ingalls Rink against North Dakota — has a talented forward corps that should all but ensure Yale scores regularly. And if the Bulldogs stay healthy on defense and resolve the goaltender situation, Yale fans could be treated to an entire season as exciting as last year’s final weekend.
With nine returning forwards, including first-round NHL draft pick Chris Higgins ’05, Yale will rely on its offense to win close games this winter.
“Our depth at forward is definitely one of the strong points of our team,” said captain Denis Nam ’03, who will figure prominently into the attack this year after his seven goals last season. “We should be able to roll four solid lines every game.”
Higgins is the group’s cornerstone. He was a first team All-Ivy selection in his freshman season and also Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Higgins was selected 14th overall in the NHL Draft this summer by the Montreal Canadiens, but said Saturday that he is not nervous about this season despite the press.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said. “If I just play my game, the points will come.”
Complementing Higgins are Yale’s other talented forwards. Nick Deschenes ’03, who missed eight games last year with an injury, is back to provide his notable size and strength on the forward line. Deschenes had a powerful sophomore season, where he racked up 17 goals and 20 assists.
Looking to capitalize on their experience and contribute breakout seasons are Ryan Steeves ’04 and Vin Hellemeyer ’04, both proven scorers who combined for 21 goals last season.
One thing the team’s explosive offense needs to work on is focuses on running head coach Tim Taylor’s system.
“What we probably need to work on is just our overall defensive coverage, and making sure that we’re doing our jobs in our own zone,” Nam said.
A talented rookie corps also will see time this season. Christian Jensen ’06, who captained his Taft team with fellow Eli Ryan Trowbridge ’05, played in Sweden last year and netted 19 goals for his team. And Exeter’s Nate Jackson ’06 led the New England Prep League in scoring.
“I haven’t been disappointed by any [of the freshmen],” Taylor said.
Yale’s roster includes just seven defensive players, and two of them are freshmen. But the Bulldogs only dress six blueliners for each game, so only injuries could pose a problem.
“I am fully confident in the ability of the seven defensemen we have,” said Stacey Bauman ’03, who received last season’s John Poinier Award, annually given to Yale’s top defensive player. “We actually have more depth than it looks like.”
The defensive lineup includes Jeff Dwyer ’04, who was an All-Ivy selection twice and shared Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman. Dangerous on the power-play and responsible during man-down situations, Dwyer is an offensive-minded defenseman who has worked on perfecting his defensive play when inside Yale’s zone.
Greg Boucher ’03 and Bryan Freeman ’03 are also two-way players whose experience will be crucial to the short defensive lineup. The aggressive and physical Joe Callahan ’05 played in every game last year as a freshman en route to his third round selection in the NHL Draft this summer by the Phoenix Coyotes.
“We don’t have all the elements,” Taylor said. “We could use a little more size, but with Stacey [Bauman] back [from injury] we have five men in the lineup with experience and speed.”
To protect themselves against injury, the Bulldogs are training two forwards to play defense in case an extra blueliner is needed.
Nam said the forwards can help the defense by reducing the number of opposing shots.
“We’ll try and tie up the other team’s forecheckers just to take some of the pressure off of our defensemen,” Nam said.
Goaltending remains the Bulldogs’ biggest question mark.
Pete Cohen ’05 was named ECAC Goalie of the Week last year for his first collegiate win against Ohio State University, where he recorded 30 saves.
Meanwhile, Pete Dobrowlski ’04 has big-game experience. He filled in for Daniel Lombard ’02 for the final two regular season games against Harvard and Brown his freshman year. Dobrowlski stopped 58 shots on the weekend.
Rookie Josh Gartner ’06 is the third option, and he has been impressive in his first two appearances.
But Nam said the uncertainty in goal has not hurt the team at all.
“We have confidence in whomever coach Taylor chooses to start on Saturday night, and the goalies are just pushing each other in practice to make themselves better,” Nam said.
Taylor did not publicly announce the goaltending starter before press time Thursday night.
The Elis have no time to waste on their schedule. They open Saturday against perennial power North Dakota and face ECAC opponents Cornell and Colgate the week after.
Later this season, Yale will get a chance to prove itself in a holiday tournament hosted by defending national champion Minnesota.
“Our obvious goal is to win the ECACs, but I think it’s important for us to get off to a good start,” Nam said.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the ECAC preseason poll.
“To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to the preseason rankings,” Bauman said. “Offensively, this may be one of the most gifted Yale teams in recent years. Defense has become the focus for us. I really believe that it is the key to whether we win this year or not. I know that each night, our offense is going to put us in a position to win the game, and it is up to our team’s collective defensive effort to ensure that we do win.”