The men’s hockey team hits the road for the second consecutive weekend, facing the cellar-dwelling University of Vermont tonight and fifth place Dartmouth tomorrow.

With four regular season games remaining, six points separate first place Brown (14-6-5, 12-4-2 ECAC) and sixth place Yale (12-13-0, 10-8-0). The Bulldogs are only three points out of a first-round playoff bye and home ice advantage in the ECAC quarterfinals, but will need a strong showing against the physical Big Green (10-7-8, 8-4-6) and the Catamounts (6-19-4, 4-13-1).

While the Elis suffered a 9-4 home loss to Dartmouth Nov. 21, the Bulldogs have improved drastically from the 1-5 team the Big Green clobbered.

“We’re a hell of a lot better defensive team,” winger Jeff Hristovski ’06 said. “That’s definitely a big difference. It’ll be a totally different game. [Josh] Gartner [’06 is] playing amazing in net. We’re bringing our goals against down every game.”

The Elis are coming off of their best defensive weekend of the season, allowing a combined three goals in two road games against Colgate (16-9-5, 11-5-2) and Cornell (12-7-6, 10-5-3). Despite the recent improvement, Yale still ranks last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 4.28 goals per game.

The Bulldogs recognize that as the season winds down, they will have to rely on their defense to win low-scoring games.

“We’ve been winning games, but we gave up a lot of shots,” captain Vin Hellemeyer ’04 said. “We’d been winning, but we weren’t playing the defense that wins games. As you get closer to the playoffs, you’re not going to be winning a 6-5 game.”

Heading into Burlington tonight, the Elis will face a hot goaltender in Travis Russell. The Catamount netminder helped Vermont get two road wins last weekend, with stellar play against Clarkson (11-14-5, 6-10-2) and St. Lawrence (10-17-5, 6-10-2). His play earned him ECAC Goalie of the Week and National Player of the Week honors from Inside College Hockey, an associate Web site.

The potent Yale offense, second in the conference in scoring, will look to get back on track after netting an uncharacteristically low four goals last weekend. The first line of Ryan Steeves ’04, Hristovski, and the nation’s leader in game-winning goals, Joe Zappala ’06, lead the charge.

“We’ve just been clicking every weekend,” Hristovski said. “We’re hoping to step it up.”

The Elis have been able to step it up on the road this season, posting a 4-1 record away from Ingalls since Jan. 1.

Yale heads to Thompson Arena in Hanover, N.H., to face a Dartmouth team with a penchant for physical play. The Big Green lead the ECAC in penalty minutes with 21 per game.

“They always have some pretty good size and focus on playing a rough physical style,” Hellemeyer said.

Forward Lee Stempniak and highly touted sophomore forward Hugh Jessiman lead the Big Green’s offensive charge. At 6-foot-5-inches and 215 pounds, there are few forwards in the ECAC with Jessiman’s size and strength, one of the reasons the New York Rangers selected him with the 12th overall pick in last year’s NHL draft.

Stempniak and Jessiman are ninth and 12th in the ECAC in scoring with 29 and 28 points respectively.

The Bulldogs, one of the smaller teams in the conference, have toughened up as the season has progressed, one of the keys to their mid-season surge.

“We love playing bigger, stronger teams,” said Hristovski, one of Yale’s more physical forwards. “We get up for those games. We’re definitely up for any physical game.”

Dartmouth also employs a large defensive corps that will try to slow down the speedy Eli offense. Recently, opposing defensemen have been able to disrupt Yale’s breakout by pinching along the boards to take away the pass to the center.

“[We’re] trying to emphasize the fact that we can’t be worried about making that perfect pass,” Hellemeyer said. “The most important thing for us is trying not to be too fancy.”

The Bulldogs’ wingers will also try to leave the defensive zone early, drawing the opposition’s blueliners with them in order to create skating room for defensemen or the center, Hristovski said.

With the regular season coming to an end, and home ice advantage and a bye at stake, the Elis will have to make these adjustments to be successful.

“The way our team is thinking right now, we’re definitely shooting for one of those top spots,” defenseman Joe Callahan ’05 said. “If we don’t, it’s not all bad either.”

Home ice would also give the Elis’ coaching staff the opportunity to make the last line change on stoppages of play, thus allowing them to control on-ice matchups in addition to the comforts of home.

“Being at home, having your own bed to sleep in, having your crowd at the games [is great],” Hristovski said. “We love playing at home. You get a weekend to rest up and make sure everyone’s healthy.”

News and Notes: Beating Yale has not been UVM’s primary concern this week. Backup goalie Matt Hanson, who suffered a fractured vertebra in practice Feb. 12, is in stable condition and has normal neurological functions, Vermont school doctor John Porter said. Fan balloting has begun for this year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given annually to college hockey’s best player. Yale knows one candidate all too well — Brown goalie Yann Danis, who has beaten Yale in five of the last six meetings between the two Ivy rivals.

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