Despite a rocky start, the men’s hockey team has a chance to head into its exam break with a .500 record in the conference.

The Bulldogs (3-8-0, 3-5-0 ECAC) go to upstate New York for games against Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute (7-4-2, 2-1-1) tonight and Union (7-3-3, 2-1-1) tomorrow night. With several forwards finding their scoring touch, the Eli offense is on the rise. But Yale will need to improve its team defense and penalty kill to have any hopes of a road sweep.

Forwards Joe Zappala ’06, Jeff Hristovski ’06, Christian Jensen ’06, and Ryan Steeves ’04 have been mainstays on the score sheet recently, registering a combined 27 points in their last five games. Zappala, the team and ECAC goal-scoring leader, was named ECAC Co-Player of the Week for his seven-point weekend against No. 13 Dartmouth (4-1-4, 3-0-3) and the University of Vermont (0-10-2, 0-6-0) Nov. 21 and 22 respectively, while Hristovski was named to the ECAC Honor Roll after a four-point game against Princeton Nov. 29.

“To me, that’s a positive,” head coach Tim Taylor said. “What we have to do is parlay that into consistent line play. I’d like to be able [to use] those four guys as catalysts.”

Yale is averaging 3.4 goals per game during the five-game stretch, nearly an entire goal more than it averaged during the season’s first four games.

“Sometimes when you’re in a drought like that, it just takes one goal to get you going,” Zapalla said. “Sometimes it just takes time to get some chemistry going.”

The Bulldogs have also improved their once-ailing power play, with seven power play goals in the same five games.

“It takes time to build a good power play,” Taylor said. “We’ve felt pretty good all along that we had good personnel.”

However, the Elis have struggled on the other side of special teams: penalty killing. Yale has allowed 17 power play goals this season, killing off only 66.7% of man-down situations.

In conjunction with penalty-kill problems, the Eli team defense has also faltered at even strength.

The Bulldogs have allowed 37 goals in eight conference games this season, posting the second-worst average in the ECAC.

“The main thing we’ve been stressing has been battling down low [and] not letting the other team get free at all,” Zappala said. “We know the mistakes we’ve made, it’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”

The inconsistent play of Yale netminders Matt Modelski ’07 and Josh Gartner ’06 has not helped. They sport the 11th and 13th best goals against average in the conference, respectively.

“I’m unhappy with the inconsistency with that position, as are the [goalies] themselves,” Taylor said. “It’s something we’re working hard [on] as a team.”

Gartner, whose 4.90 goals against average is nearly double that of his rookie season, will get the starting nod tonight.

“It doesn’t feel any different physically [than last year],” Gartner said.

Gartner has focused on playing more aggressively and communicating better with the defenseman, he said.

Although Gartner will play tonight, no one has locked up the starting job.

“You try not to think about that,” Gartner said. “It’s good to have a little competition in practice.”

Goaltending is certainly not the only leak in the Bulldog defense.

A 7-2 loss to No. 15 Boston University (4-4-4) Nov. 30 revealed several of the Elis’ defensive shortcomings, Taylor said.

“It was not just one thing,” he said. “They got their goals in a variety of different ways.”

Yale faces a tough Engineer squad at Houston Field House in Troy tonight. RPI has only lost once in its last six games, a 4-3 defeat to No. 5 University of New Hampshire (9-3-1).

“RPI has played some very strong opponents and been very effective defensively,” Taylor said. “The challenge for us offensively will be to create space. They always have three guys back.”

The Dutchmen, under first-year head coach Nathan Leaman, will be a challenge for Yale on Saturday night, playing a similar style to RPI.

“Both teams have pretty good jump up front. I think they’re quite similar,” Taylor said. “I think we have to hope for low-scoring games against these teams.”

Union and RPI are tied for fourth in the ECAC in team defense, allowing 2.25 goals per game.

Early season struggles aside, the Bulldogs have an opportunity to exit the weekend with a 5-5 ECAC record without nearly having reached its potential.

“We’ve yet to really play what I would say is really a good Yale hockey game from start to finish,” Taylor said. “[The players] need to do it for their own feeling of self-worth and confidence.”

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