With three weeks remaining in the season and a first-round bye on the line, the men’s ice hockey team is hoping that the re-emergence of its top line and power play last weekend was more than a 48-hour fluke.
The Bulldogs (14-9-0, 10-6-0 ECAC, 20 pts.) will face Union in upstate New York (12-12-4, 8-6-2, 18 pts.) Friday night before traveling to Rensselaer (9-19-2, 3-11-2, 8 pts.) Saturday.
With a reinvigorated top line and a suddenly sizzling power play, last weekend was an impressive sweep for the Elis. Forward Chris Higgins ’05, who is involved in both improved parts of the Bulldogs’ game, had an explosive weekend with a hat trick in a 15-minute span against St. Lawrence and another goal against Clarkson. Higgins earned the ECAC Player of the Week honors for his performance.
“We need to continue this weekend where we left off,” said Higgins of himself and linemates Nick Deschenes ’03 and Vin Hellemeyer ’04. “I think we all came into the year expecting great things. It’s not like we haven’t been successful — we just wish our production was more consistent.”
The trio combined for six goals and eight assists last weekend, with Deschenes notching the late game-tying goal en route to Yale’s 5-4 comeback victory over Clarkson.
“I think our line is clicking a little more because we picked up some confidence after a couple pretty good games,” Hellemeyer said.
At one point this season, the Bulldogs had gone seven straight games without a power play goal. But the extra-man unit has rediscovered its fire with eight goals in the last four games, largely because of Higgins’ new role in which he quarterbacks the play from the point.
“I wish I had been playing the point from the beginning of the year,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to play that particular position especially when your main job is to shoot.”
In last weekend’s sweep, Yale was 4-for-6 on power play chances, while killing off its opponent’s nine extra-man opportunities.
The play of the Eli’s top line may have not been much of a shock last weekend, but the production from the fourth line was a nice surprise. Freshmen Joe Zappala ’06 and Zach Mayer ’06 proved themselves to be a very good combination, setting each other up for several scores last weekend, including Zappala’s game winner against Clarkson.
But Mayer was quick to comment on a more overlooked statistic between the two players.
“Joe and I are really happy to contribute offensively, but I think the fact that we haven’t given up any goals against as a line in these past three games is something we’re more proud of, and it’s more indicative of the way we play,” Mayer said. “The first two lines will get the offense, that’s a given. It’s up to us to keep the other team off the board.”
The Union game in particular will be closely watched around the league, as the Dutchmen trail the Elis by only two points in the standings. Currently, Yale and Union occupy the third and fourth spots, which would ensure a first-round bye for both squads in the ECAC playoffs is they started today.
The Dutchmen have been one of the surprise stories of the ECAC this season. Picked to finish 10th in the ECAC preseason coaches poll and dead last in the media poll, Union finds itself in sole possession of fourth place three weeks before the end of the regular season.
“I think we’ve matured a lot,” head coach Kevin Sneddon said. “Obviously when we played a very good Yale team up at Yale [on Nov. 16], we certainly felt like we were outplayed and certainly deserved to be the recipients of the loss, but I think our leadership has really carried us of late.”
The Dutchmen, who have seen excellent goaltending from freshman Kris Mayotte, have gone 5-2-1 in their last eight games, with last Friday’s 3-2 loss to Brown breaking a five-game win streak.
Mayotte has exceeded expectations for his rookie season with a .915 save percentage and 2.57 GAA.
Two sophomores, Jordan Webb and Joel Beal, lead the Dutchmen in scoring with 33 and 32 points respectively.
“A lot of our younger players have really picked it up and that’s really a tribute to our leadership,” he said.
While RPI may not have an impressive league record, the Engineers proved how quickly any ECAC team can take another one by surprise with their 4-3 overtime victory over Brown in RPI’s annual “Big Red Freakout!” game. The Engineers have yet to lose a Freakout game in the 13-year old fan favorite tradition.
Junior forward Ben Barr has had the hot stick lately for the Engineers, scoring six points in his last five games for RPI, while freshman Kevin Croxton leads the team in scoring with 25 points.
As far as Yale’s offense goes, the Elis need to continue to buy into Taylor’s defense-creates-offense mentality if they want to continue their successful play.
“We’ve had a lot of success offensively this year, which has been a blessing and a curse because when we get into trouble it’s usually because we’re thinking offense first,” Mayer said. “Thinking defense first is the real key.”
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