As the men’s hockey team continues its push for home ice in the ECAC playoffs, it is trying to take advantage of the precious few home games remaining in its schedule.

The Bulldogs (12-9-0, 8-6-0 ECAC) will enjoy the cozy confines of Ingalls Rink this weekend when they face St. Lawrence (7-15-4, 4-8-2) Friday night and Union (12-11-4, 8-5-2) on Saturday. The games will mark the first time this season that Yale has played either of the two ECAC teams.

After skating to a split last weekend in which the Elis beat the University of Vermont before falling to Dartmouth, the team is hoping to use their home ice to their benefit.

“We obviously have to take advantage of these home games because we go on the road these next two weekends,” said head coach Tim Taylor. “Hopefully the team will be excited and motivated to play on our home ice.”

The Bulldogs have dropped four home games at home this year, two of them to ECAC teams, but have been victorious in the other six. After this weekend, the Elis will not return to Ingalls Rink until their final regular season weekend against Colgate and Cornell.

Despite not winning both games last week, there were bright spots for the Bulldogs including an improved power play and a commanding offensive effort against Vermont.

First-year forwards Christian Jensen ’06, Zach Mayer ’06, Joe Zappala ’06 and Jeff Hristovski ’06 combined for three goals and four assists last weekend, while goaltender Josh Gartner ’06 has a strong .925 save percentage.

“I think that so far our class has made a pretty good contribution, and we just want to keep doing whatever we can to help the team be successful,” Gartner said.

With his third four-point game of the year, Evan Wax ’03 earned accolades from the ECAC, who placed him on their weekly honor roll. The other Bulldog to earn recognition this week was forward Chris Higgins ’05, who was named one of 12 finalists for the Walter Brown Award. The Gridiron Club of Boston gives the award to the best American-born hockey player in New England. Higgins has been a large part of Yale’s now-productive power play unit.

The Elis have recorded a power play goal in six of the last seven games, including three against Vermont.

“In the last couple of weekends we’ve certainly gotten some production from it,” Taylor said. “I’ve felt all along that we’d get better and better, and that forecast has come true.”

The Bulldogs have not, however, been the only ones getting better. Both Clarkson and St. Lawrence have been improving of late, with the Clarkson Golden Knights moving up the ECAC standings into a sixth-place tie that has them only one point out of fourth.

Clarkson head coach Fred Parker said that he felt his team’s major problem was a lack of consistency.

“We’ve been very inconsistent,” he said. “On a weekend basis, we’ve had one really good game and one not-so-good game.”

Parker entered the season as an assistant coach, but the early-season firing of head coach Mark Morris over a controversial accusation that he had had a physical confrontation with a player in practice left Parker with the head coaching position.

But, according to Parker, the team has not been adversely affected by the incidents.

“That’s long past,” Parker said. “We don’t even worry about that anymore.”

Instead, the Golden Knights are worrying about improving their offense, which is eighth in the league. No one player has dominated Clarkson’s offensive output, with the scoring spread among a number of players.

But three players have proven themselves to be established scorers. Kevin O’Flaherty, Rob McFeeters and Randy Jones have all scored 20 points or higher, with Jones leading the team in goal scoring with eight on the season.

“It’s been more or less a team effort on any given weekend,” Parker said, “Our captains as of late have been playing excellent hockey but for the most part its been a team effort all year long.”

Parker has rotated two goalies — freshman Dustin Traylan and senior Mike Walsh — and both have met with relative success, averaging 2.4 goals per game.

Playing in front of Traylan and Walsh, the Clarkson defense has been the team’s strong point. The Golden Knights’ defense is ranked third in the ECAC.

St. Lawrence has struggled this season and dwells in the ECAC basement with a record that is better only than that of Princeton. But head coach Joe Marsh said that he had expected “growing pains” with his young team, and that there were positive aspects to his team’s play as of late.

“We’re gradually coming around,” he said. “We’re 5-4-3 in our last 12, and while that does seem relatively modest in terms of improvement, it is still improvement.”

Last season’s leading scorer, Rich Peverly, has returned to form with a 23-point season that is tops on the team.

Forward Jim Lorentz, with 10 goals on the season, is another offensive weapon for the Saints.

Marsh noted that the new ECAC playoff format, which gives first-round byes to the top four teams and home ice advantage to the next four in the first round, will benefit his team. Previously, only the top 10 teams in the ECAC made it to the playoffs, but now all schools have a chance to compete.

“Fortunately for us, the new format of the playoffs will give everyone an opportunity come playoff time,” he said, adding that this weekend’s road trip will be a good opportunity for the Saints to tune up their road play.

“We’ll shore up on that, because it looks like we’ll be on the road in the playoffs,” he said.

Taylor said that while both opponents had starts that were below expectations, they will be entering New Haven with momentum.

“They’re going to come in here playing their best hockey of the year,” he said. “This time of year we’re not making a lot of tactical changes — we feel pretty good about the way the lines are formed and the way the team is adapting to the system — so it’s all about execution.”

And, in a league in which as little as five points can separate a team with a first-round bye from one that doesn’t even have home-ice advantage, every win is important. With just two home games remaining after this weekend, the Bulldogs will focus on taking advantage of this home weekend.

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