The Yale men’s ice hockey team (11-10-0, 9-5-0 ECAC) defends “the Whale” this weekend in two crucial conference games while looking to continue its six-game winning streak.
Friday, the Bulldogs host arch-rival Harvard (8-11-2, 6-8-1 ECAC), a game that will be shown live on national television. The following night, ECAC frontrunners No. 12 Brown (12-5-4, 10-3-1 ECAC) are in town to take on the Elis.
“I thought this was going to be one of our best teams in my four years,” captain Vin Hellemeyer ’04 said. “We turned it around pretty quick. Hopefully things will keep going our way. We could move up in the standings. These are two huge games for us.”
The Bulldogs started off the season slow, and suffered loses at the hands of both Brown and Harvard on the road in mid-November. However, things have since improved as the Elis have gone 10-5 and are currently standing in third place in the ECAC, tied with Dartmouth and close behind Colgate and Brown.
In the first match up against the Bears, Yale was dominated 6-0. Struggling offensively and defensively, the Bulldogs could not get the puck past Brown’s star goalie Yann Danis while Eli netminder Matt Modelski ’07 had many spectacular saves in the effort.
The Elis played a much better hockey game against the Crimson the following night. But Harvard had a 3:30 spurt where it netted three goals, which proved too much for Yale, as the team fell 4-1.
Brown has stayed consistent, led by Hobey Baker candidate Danis, who is currently the nation’s top goaltender with a .951 save percentage and 1.54 goals against average while earning four shutouts. Offensively the Bears are led by both youth and experience. Freshman forward Brian Ihnacak leads the team with 25 points while senior veteran Brent Robinson has 22.
On the other hand, Harvard is in desperate need of a win as a long slump has knocked the Crimson down to 8th in the ECAC. With 12 NHL draft picks, and having graduated only three impact players from last year’s 22-win team, the season has been a big disappointment thus far. Despite their record, Harvard can play with any team — just last weekend they lost to Brown 2-1 in overtime after leading 1-0 late in the game.
In addition, the Harvard-Yale hockey rivalry is 215 games old and has recently been dominated by the home team, an advantage the Elis have on Friday.
“We’re definitely not taking [Harvard] lightly,” Josh Gartner ’06 said. “This is a great test for us.”
While Harvard has been plagued with mediocrity, Yale has turned around its season after starting a disappointing 1-6. Forward Joe Zappala ’06 has boosted the team with his national best eight game winning goals while leading in points with 26, scoring in 11 or the last 12 games. His line mates Jeff Hristovski ’06 and Ryan Steeves ’04 are not far behind with 24 and 22 points respectively.
Yale head coach Tim Taylor has had Zappala, Hristovski, Steeves playing together since the start and their production speaks for itself. After shuffling around in the early goings, Christian Jensen ’06, Hellemeyer, and Brad Mills ’07 make up another line, and together they have been producing many points as of late.
Early on, Taylor exercised his options for goalie, and Gartner has proved he deserves the starting position, with a 9-4 record. After picking up the sweep of St. Lawrence and Clarkson last weekend, Gartner earned ECAC Goalie of the Week for the fourth time this season.
Though the Bulldogs have turned their season around, this weekend will be the biggest thus far this season.
“Every game down this stretch is a playoff game,” Zappala said. “Every game means so much in our league. We have to do our best to hold our lead.”