What a difference a year makes.

With a win over Union on Saturday, the women’s hockey team reached a .500 record (7-7-3, 4-3-0 ECAC), representing a tremendous improvement on the 2002-2003 season. This time last year, the Bulldogs, who were still adjusting to new head coach Hillary Witt’s systems and relying heavily on a batch of unproven rookies, were a mere 4-12-1.

But with the defensive systems now a firm part of the Elis’ play and an established sophomore class that shows no sign of letting up, the Bulldogs may soon entertain hopes of going far in the playoffs.

“We’re focusing more on weekend to weekend and trying not too look too far ahead and look at the next game coming up,” captain Kristin Kattleman ’04 said. “But if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, giving a good effort each weekend, that’s going to head us off better come the playoffs.”

Special teams play is one area where the Bulldogs have shown significant progress.

Last season, Yale allowed a power-play goal on roughly one out of five chances. This season, the penalty kill percentage has climbed to a respectable .870.

“Especially last weekend in our games against Union we’ve tried to be much more aggressive — instead of icing the puck we’ve been trying to skate it,” Kattleman said. “At the beginning of year, we set goals for team. Improving the penalty kill was one of the biggest issues because a lot of times in a tough game the penalty kill and the power play can win or lose the game.”

But even when the defense breaks down, the Elis are often saved by their crafty goalie, Sarah Love ’06.

“[Love’s] awesome,” forward Jenna Spring ’07 said. “It gives us a lot of confidence that she’s back there making big saves for us.”

In her sophomore campaign, Love has solidified her role as the team’s top starter with a .921 save percentage that ranks fourth best in the ECAC, 2.15 GAA and 5-7-3 overall record. Love also has three shutouts in 15 games. Back-ups Nicolette Franck ’04 and Carrie Horbatuk ’07 have been reliable in Love’s absence with a win apiece.

Perhaps one of the most fan-pleasing changes on this year’s squad is the offense. The Bulldogs are averaging 2.53 goals scored per game, which is a marked increase from last year’s 2.32 mark. The upgrade in scoring comes largely from the team’s ability to pepper the opposing goalie with shots and crash the net hoping for a rebound. Yale now averages 43 shots on goal, with 19 coming in the final period of play.

The rookie class, comprising more than a third of the roster, is also making an impact. Sheila Zingler ’07 is tied for third in the ECAC in points scored by a freshman on the strength of her 12 points in 17 games. Kristin Savard ’07 and Spring have also had strong rookie starts.

“We have quite a few freshmen and they’re all making a big impact individually on our game,” Kattleman said. “With a big freshman class, we’ve brought a lot of depth to the team. This is the first year we’ve run four lines consistently. The freshmen have stepped up and they’ve all played well.”

Asked whether the team’s improvement could be singularly caused by Love’s play, the attention paid to special teams, or the creation of defensive opportunities, Spring asserted that it was a combination of all of the above.

“We’re working really hard to be above .500,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a team in the history of this program with a winning record. Everything’s coming better after break. We just have to finish our chances a little more.”

The Bulldogs’ fine play has not yet translated into sold-out rinks, as roughly 150 people attend each home game.

“I think we need to win a few more games and have a winning season before people really start coming,” Spring said. “But it’s been getting better and people are starting to notice.”

With an upcoming season-defining game against a Harvard battalion that ranks third best in the nation, both the pressure and the interest in Yale women’s hockey is rising.

“I’ve never been to a match because I rarely hear about them,” Qazim Hyseni ’06 said. “But I will definitely make it out to the game against Harvard and see them body-check some Crimson butt.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”18477″ ]