Four months ago the men’s hockey team opened its ECAC schedule, projected in presason polls to finish sixth in the league.
But with one regular season weekend remaining against Colgate and No. 2 Cornell — the two teams that the Bulldogs faced at the beginning of their ECAC season — the Elis can clinch a third-place finish by earning just one out of a possible four points.
In their final regular season pair of games, Yale (17-10-0, 13-7-0 ECAC, 26 pts.) returns home to Ingalls Rink to face the Raiders (13-16-3, 8-10-2, 18 pts.) Friday night before their much-anticipated sellout matchup against the Big Red (22-4-1, 17-2-1, 35 pts.) Saturday night. The Yale-Cornell game will be the first of seven college hockey games to air live on the New England Sports Network and the YES network.
In a college hockey weekend that could end up with any number of playoff scenarios, the Elis are in charge of their own destiny. As long as Yale does not drop both contests, the Bulldogs will finish third in the conference. But with two Yale losses and weekend sweeps by both Brown and Dartmouth, the Elis would fall to fifth place in the league and lose the first-round bye they have been hanging on to for much of the season. A fifth place finish would mean Yale would host the last-place team in a best-of-three first round series.
“On one level, this weekend is just like any other weekend of hockey, and the things that make us successful are not going to change because of the playoff implications or who we’re playing,” said defenseman Bryan Freeman ’03. “On the other hand I think everyone is looking forward to the hype that comes with the weekend.”
With Cornell and Harvard having locked up the top two positions in the league already, the rest of the playoff scenario is more vague. Configurations could include a five-way tie for fourth place, a five-way tie for sixth place, or a lineup in which Ivy League schools comprise five of the top six teams.
The Elis are winless against ranked teams, and a win against Cornell would be beneficial not only in ECAC seedings, but in possible NCAA selection down the road. The index the NCAA uses to select at-large teams factors in bonus points for wins against top-ranked teams, and at No. 2, Cornell is ranked higher than any ECAC team has been in recent memory.
Yale entered their matchup with the Big Red in October without forwards Chris Higgins ’05, Nick Deschenes ’03, and Evan Wax ’03 and defenseman Stacey Bauman ’03, all of whom were serving one-game suspensions for fighting in their previous game against North Dakota.
Since the opening league weekend, the Bulldogs have maintained roughly the same lineup, and have benefitted from an explosive offense and increasingly stingy defense.
“We have been fortunate not to experience too many injuries,” Deschenes said. “Our offense has been a strong point, and [goalie] Josh Gartner ’06 has been giving us a chance to win every night. Our D-corps has really tightened up in the last few weeks.”
Deschenes, Freeman, Bauman, and Wax, along with captain Denis Nam ’03 and defenseman Greg Boucher ’03, make up the cast of seniors who will be honored at Senior Night Saturday.
“They’ve been the glue that’s held this team together,” head coach Tim Taylor said. “There’s been great leadership there, great performances from each and every one of those guys. You don’t have a successful winning season without senior leadership, and it’s one of the most productive classes we’ve had in recent years in all sorts of ways.”
While it is easy and tempting to look ahead to Saturday night’s contest, the team is focusing on Friday’s game against Colgate first. The Raiders, while a young team, have played well this season, even dealing the Big Red one of their four losses in a 2-1 overtime victory at Colgate on Jan. 30.
“We need three points to clinch home ice in the playoffs,” said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan. “Our team has matured over the course of the year, but with a young team like ours you struggle on the road, so we have a real big challenge ahead of us this weekend.”
The Raiders, 11-4-1 when playing at home, have won only two road games, but with ECAC-leading goal scorer Scooter Smith (21 goals) and 2-time ECAC Goalie of the Week Steve Silverthorn, they’re not a team to take lightly. Smith has recorded 11 multiple-point games this season.
Saturday, however, the Elis will face possibly the biggest test of their season against No. 2 Cornell.
“I think playing the No. 2 team in the nation on Senior Night in our building is an amazing opportunity,” Wax said. “We match up well against Cornell, and have always played them real well at Ingalls.”
While Cornell cannot match Yale’s offensive power — only two Big Red players have goal totals in the double-digit this season — its defense has been the best in the league. Sophomore goaltender Dave LeNeveu is tops in the nation in goals-against-average (1.21), save percentage (.938), and win percentage (.891), which speaks to both his personal talent and the highly physical defensive cast that has allowed only 1.41 goals per game, also good for the national number one ranking.
“The key to playing Cornell is to realize right off the bat that you’re in a very low scoring game, so obviously it would be a huge boost to score first,” Taylor said. “They have one of the best power plays in the country, so you have to be penalty free. You have to go into the game knowing that you are going to get very few opportunities and you have to take advantage of the few you get.”
Deschenes added that the Elis needed to focus on competing with the size and strength of the Cornell lineup.
“With home ice advantage, we can’t let them run over us,” he said. “They are a big physical team, and we need to match that.”
The Bulldogs have not been swept at home yet this season, and with what will be a packed Ingalls Rink and an emotional Senior Night, the odds of securing the first round bye are good, as long as they can keep their focus on Friday night. With nine victories in the last 11 games, it will be a matter of continuing the solid play, and elevating their game against the Big Red.
“I think everyone feels like, even at this point in the year, there’s still another level this team has yet to reach,” Freeman said. “I look forward to seeing it this weekend.”