For the city of Chicago, the elimination of the University of Illinois-Chicago hockey program in 1996 meant the end of collegiate hockey in the Windy City.
But on Saturday, Chicago will play host to what should shape up to be a high-speed, offensive-minded game between two evenly-matched teams.
After the men’s hockey team hosted them in New Haven two years ago, the University of Notre Dame (9-9-4, 7-8-1 CCHA, 15 pts.) is returning the favor this weekend. The Fighting Irish will host the Bulldogs (8-8-0, 7-5-0 ECAC, 14 pts.) in a two-game series, with Friday’s contest to be held in South Bend and Saturday’s game to take place at the Allstate Arena in Chicago.
“I think it’s an exciting part of the schedule,” Yale head coach Tim Taylor said. “It’s a non-conference weekend and a chance to go to a great collegiate institution with a great athletic tradition.”
The Allstate Arena, which is the home rink for the defending Calder Cup-winning Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, has yet to host a college game. Both schools are taking advantage of the size and locale of the arena by hosting alumni events as part of the Saturday schedule.
Both teams enter the game with .500 records, with the Bulldogs faltering of late because of problems in goal and on defense. The Elis have lost five of their last six games, allowing an average of 5.2 goals per game during that stretch.
“We need to get some more confidence from our goaltenders,” Taylor said. “I think everybody’s a little shaken right now because of the number of goals and the manner in which we’ve given them up.”
In the most recent game against No. 13 Harvard, Yale netminder Peter Cohen ’05 was pulled after giving up five goals in two periods. Goalie Josh Gartner ’06 replaced Cohen, earning ECAC Goalie of the Week honors over Christmas break for his 44 saves against Bowling Green in the Dodge Holiday Classic.
Taylor said Gartner will start Friday.
Hoping to remedy their recent problems with defensive lapses, the Bulldogs focused on their play without the puck this week, working on their defensive system as well as their neutral zone movement and forecheck.
Despite their defensive lapses, the Bulldogs have continued to generate offensive chances. In losses to Harvard and Brown, the Bulldogs outshot their two ECAC opponents 70-53 while earning two-goal weekends from forwards Jeff Hristovski ’06 and Chris Higgins ’05.
“We’re expecting a lot of speed,” Irish head coach Dave Poulin said. “From what I’ve seen on the tape, obviously Mr. Higgins is quite a hockey player, and I think it’s a pretty deep team. Up front there’s a pretty good group of veterans.”
One trend that has completely reversed itself for the Elis is their late-game production. Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs dominated in the third period, scoring the majority of their goals at that time. Now, the team has gone three games without a final stanza score. The Elis have also struggled on the power play, and their 14.9 percentage is second to last in the league.
The Bulldogs have won three of four contests against the Fighting Irish, who are currently sixth in the CCHA. The Irish, like the Bulldogs, are a fast team with high potential to score goals.
“I don’t think we’ve quite hit our stride yet,” Poulin said. “The expectations were very high, and we’ve had a similar situation that Tim Taylor’s had — we have the most difficult schedule.”
Fighting Irish right wing Rob Globke is enjoying a fruitful season. His career-high 17 goals tie him for the CCHA lead and also place him ninth nationally.
In addition, the Irish’s line of John Wroblewski, Yan Stastny, and Aaron Gill have scored nine goals and added 12 assists since being put together four games ago.
Like the Bulldogs, Notre Dame has struggled defensively. But unlike Yale, the Irish have seen consistent play in net all season long from sophomore Morgan Cey, whose .902 save percentage and 29.45 saves per game have kept the Irish in all their contests.
“Morgan’s been good all year,” said Poulin, who captained the team he now coaches before embarking on a successful career in the NHL.
The captains of both teams — Yale’s Denis Nam ’03 and Notre Dame’s Evan Nielsen — both attended the Taft School and will be playing in front of family and friends in their native Chicago. Nam is the only Illinois player on the Eli roster.
Each team also features players who were recently nominated for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given to the college hockey player who has made the biggest impact outside the rink. Yale defender Stacey Bauman ’03, along with Wroblewski, are among 15 players who could receive the award, which is handed out along with the Hobey Baker Award for college hockey’s top player at the Frozen Four.
For both teams, the weekend will be an exciting, non-conference matchup between what both coaches consider to be two very similar teams.
“There’s certain matchups that you like that fit well and are exciting, and Yale-Notre Dame is one of those,” Poulin said.