Entering the first of two road weekends and with tight ECAC standings, the men’s hockey team gave itself a little breathing room and a lot of confidence with a rare road sweep.

With another strong performance from forward Chris Higgins ’05 and five other players scoring, the Bulldogs (16-9-0, 12-6-0 ECAC, 24 pts.) defeated Union (13-13-4, 9-7-2, 20 pts.) 5-1 before completing the sweep with a 5-3 win at Renesslear (9-20-3, 3-12-3, 9 pts.).

“It’s very hard to sweep in this league, and it’s much more difficult to sweep on the road, so we don’t get a lot of road sweeps,” head coach Tim Taylor said.

Seniors on the team entered the game with only two road sweeps under their belts, freshman year and last year on the Dartmouth and Vermont trip.

The Dutchmen trailed the Elis by only two points going into the weekend. Now, Union is in a three-way tie for the fourth and final first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs.

Higgins, who earned ECAC Player of the Week honors this past week for his 4-goal, 1-assist weekend against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, again had some huge plays for the Bulldogs.

Just 23 seconds into the first shift of the game, Higgins snagged a loose puck in the slot and ripped it past Union goaltender Kris Mayotte for the unassisted goal and the quick Bulldog lead.

After Union’s Marc Neron tied the game off a 2-on-1, forward Christian Jensen ’06 grabbed the lead again for the Bulldogs with an unassisted goal that came from a tangle in front of the net.

Jensen’s goal was the eventual game winner, but it was Higgin’s next score that really decided the game in Yale’s favor. As a scoreless, tight second period ticked to a close, Higgins’ wrist shot clanked off the post. But the center persisted and grabbed possession of the puck again behind the net before hitting off Mayotte’s pads and into the goal just two seconds before the second intermission.

“That goal was really what broke their back,” Taylor said. “The timing of that goal was pretty significant.”

The Dutchmen, incidentally, played the game without forwards Nathan Gillies and Scott Seney and defenseman Jason Kean, who were suspended after fighting last week.

Higgins recorded his first of three weekend assists later in the third period when he fed winger Vin Hellemeyer ’04 from the right side. Hellemeyer’s long wrist shot evaded Mayotte to give Yale the three-goal lead and Mayotte’s replacement with Tim Roth.

Goaltender Josh Gartner ’06 was essential in maintaining the comfortable lead. The freshman goaltender, who is now second nationally in win percentage, made a number of point-blank saves, ensuring that what could have been a one-goal game was instead a sizable victory.

“Gartner played phenomenal this weekend,” said center Ryan Steeves ’04, who picked up his 13th goal of the season against RPI. “It is so awesome to see a young guy like him come in and play so well, especially down the stretch. It shows a lot of poise.”

Union head coach Kevin Sneddon pulled Roth for the extra skater with 4:58 left in the game, and Roth went in and out of net three times. But Union failed to score, and captain Denis Nam ’03 added an empty net goal with 36 seconds left on the clock to bring the final score to 5-1.

The play of Yale’s defensemen also stood out over the weekend. Freeman ended with a plus-5 rating, while Stacey Bauman ’03 and Joe Callahan ’05 earned plus-4 and Jeff Dwyer ’04 finished with a plus-3.

Saturday night, 10 skaters recorded points in the 5-3 victory, with each goal coming from a different Bulldog. Sixteen penalties were assessed in the game, and RPI was able to beat what has become an outstanding Yale penalty kill unit. The Elis had successfully fought 14 straight penalties in the preceding four games.

Late in the first period, Steeves won a faceoff to Jensen, who fired a wrist shot from between the circles that beat Nathan Marsters in the RPI net. Steeves then added a goal of his own, off a Higgins assist, five minutes into the second period to bring the game to 2-1.

Less than a minute later, Higgins picked up his second assist of the night, passing from behind the net to Nick Deschenes ’03, who one-timed the puck past Marsters for the 3-1 lead.

But a series of Bulldog penalties allowed the Engineers back into the game; Nick Economakos and Kevin Croxton each recorded power play goals to bring RPI within one.

“We played really well in the first period, then we got really undisciplined in the second period and took a lot of stupid penalties,” Nam said. “That’s why the game was so close.”

Nam recorded the game-winner shortly into the third period, skating through two RPI defenders before wristing the puck for the 4-2 lead.

RPI’s Kirk MacDonald brought the Engineers close again six minutes into the final frame when he put a puck top-shelf over Gartner. But the Elis responded.

This time, it was freshman Joe Zappala ’06, who was once again set by linemate Zach Mayer ’06. Zappala snapped the puck from the bottom of the left circle to seal the 5-3 lead and the replacement of Marsters.

The Engineers were unable to score with an empty net, like Union the night before, and Yale earned its third road sweep in four years.