Warm, friendly and pleasant are not popular adjectives for New Haven in February, but after the last two weekends on the road, the men’s hockey team might use just those words to describe the Elm City.
The Bulldogs (12-15-0, 10-10-0 ECAC), who have lost three in row, host Union (12-15-5, 6-11-3) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (17-13-2, 11-8-1) Friday and Saturday night. With the ECAC playoffs one week away, Yale head coach Tim Taylor has mixed up the top two lines in an attempt to jump start the offense and improve team defense.
In the Elis’ 4-2 loss at Vermont (8-19-4, 6-13-1) Feb. 20, Taylor switched forwards Ryan Steeves ’04 and captain Vin Hellemeyer ’04, putting Steeves on the wing with Brad Mills ’07 and Christian Jensen ’06. Jeff Hristovski ’06 centered Joe Zappala ’06 and Hellemeyer.
“The big element of the switch was moving Steeves to wing and Hristovski to center,” Taylor said. “I’m trying to free Steeves up a little bit. By moving him to the wing there should be some easy passes to the left side of the rink where [he] should be flying.”
Steeves, who entered the season as Yale’s leading returning goal scorer, has netted only nine goals this year, handling play-making responsibilities on the top forward line. He has not scored a goal since Jan. 17.
“We went on a little drought,” Hristovski said. “We’re just trying to keep the offense going.”
However, offense was not the only reason for the switch.
“The last couple of games, our top two lines have been victimized by our opponents,” Taylor said.
Despite the struggles of the top two lines, the third and fourth lines have given Yale a huge lift of late. The fourth line of Ryan Burns ’07, Nick Shalek ’05 and Nate Jackson ’06 has been particularly strong.
“Our best line [last weekend] was Shalek, Jackson, and Burns,” Jensen said.
The emergence of a strong fourth group is a huge plus for the Bulldogs, who are entering the fifth month of their season.
“At this time of the year, the wear and tear on the body and the length of the season begins to show,” Taylor said. “We really need to have [energetic] and quality shifts from a line like that.”
In addition to their even-strength woes, Yale struggled mightily on the man-advantage last weekend, going a combined 0-10 in the two games.
The Elis will have their hands full with the Dutchmen and the Engineers, whose penalty kills are ranked fourth and fifth in the conference, respectively, far better than the Catamounts or Big Green units that stifled the Elis last weekend.
“This week in practice, we worked on a different style of power-play,” Hristovski said. “We’re trying some different looks and it seems to be working quite a bit better.”
The Elis have also changed the five man units, he said. The Bulldogs have 18 man-advantage goals this season, the second fewest in the ECAC.
Another area of concern for Yale is the third period.
The Bulldogs’ opponents have outscored them 7-2 in the final frame during the current three game slide. Yale has allowed 45 third period goals this season, the most in the conference.
“The third periods have killed us,” Taylor said. “In [the three losses] we were tied and in a pretty good road team position and we failed to get the job done. That’s something a good team learns how to do.”
In their early season match ups against Union and RPI Dec. 5-6, the Elis did not have third period problems and came away with two road victories.
This weekend, Yale, with its occasionally suspect defense, will match-up well with the Dutchmen, who lack a scorer ranked in the ECAC’s top 25. Union is averaging 2.44 goals scored per game, over half a goal less than Yale.
Leading the charge for the Engineers are a pair of offensive-minded defensemen, Scott Basiuk and Brady Farynuk, who are third and fourth, respectively, in scoring among ECAC blueliners.
In net, Josh Gartner ’06 will lead Yale’s defense. Taylor intends to start Gartner, who did not play last Saturday in Hanover.
Regardless of this weekend’s outcomes, Yale has secured home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve lost three in a row, we want to get going again,” Hristovski said. “We don’t care where we finish [because] we feel like we can match up well against any team we can play.”
News and Notes: While Yale’s position in the ECAC playoffs is secure, that cannot be said for most teams. Only five points separate the top five squads — nationally ranked No. 13 Colgate (18-9-5, 13-5-2) being the only team to have clinched a first-round bye. “There is a great deal of parity in the league,” Taylor said. “The team offenses and team defenses are much closer than they were before.”