During the last seven weeks, the men’s hockey team has implemented a precarious formula to resurrect its season: score a couple of goals on about 20 shots and lean on the acrobatic goaltender Matt Modelski ’07 to do the rest.
The Elis have largely relied on this strategy since Nov. 27, when Modelski procured for good the previously unsettled starting position, and had amassed a 2-5-1 record, which included near misses against No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 2 Boston College. But Saturday’s game showed the danger of a one-man defense.
In the two games prior to Yale’s visit to New Hampshire Jan. 15 — a 2-1 win over Clarkson Jan. 8 and a 1-0 loss to BC Jan. 11 — the Elis relied heavily on Modelski while their offense sputtered. Modelski stopped 81 of 83 shots in the two games, including 49 of 50 against the Eagles, but despite his skillful efforts the Bulldogs knew they were flirting with disaster by being outshot 83-37 in the two contests.
In college basketball, television analysts caution viewers every March on the perils of picking jump-shooting teams in the NCAA tournament — jump shooters are bound to get cold at some point, they say, while teams with consistent inside scoring generally play to their potential. In hockey, a balance between offense and defense is necessary to excel. Sure enough, the walls finally caved in for Yale on Saturday. Modelski did not play poorly — just not like Superman — and when “The Impregnable” did get beat, the Bulldogs did not seem to know what to do.
Center Brad Mills ’07, Yale’s most prolific scorer this season, pitched in with a goal in the second period when defenseman Rob Page ’08 found the center lurking behind the defense and fed him a backdoor pass. Winger Nate Jackson ’06 scored too, on an elaborate show of stickhandling that left two UNH defensemen and goalie Jeff Pietrasiak awestruck in the low slot. But those would be the only two high points for Yale. The Wildcats scored eight goals in all — five in the second period — and arrested the momentum Yale had been building up since Thanksgiving.
“We knew [New Hampshire] would be very strong offensively,” head coach Tim Taylor said. “There were too many odd-man rushes and we let them get the better of the grade-A scoring chances.”
Yale also had too few rushes of its own. Winger Christian Jensen ’06, Mills’ linemate all season, has been one of the few consistent scorers for the Bulldogs this season, leading the team with eight goals. He tallied the secondary assist on Mills’ goal, but he knows the team has struggled to score this season — he just could not pinpoint the main reason why.
“We don’t block enough shots and we have too many shots blocked,” Jensen said. “A lot of scoring chances fizzle out because we just don’t get the puck to the net. A lot of that is sort of a confidence issue. When you’re in a slump you feel rushed to do things and I think some of our guys feel rushed right now.”
Both Jensen and Jackson said that Yale needs to play stronger in the neutral zone. Often the mark of a great team is its ability to turn its opponent’s neutral zone giveaways into its own scoring chances — or, the ability to turn defense into offense.
“We’re a mediocre transition team,” Jackson said. “We’re having a hard time burying the puck when we get our chances, too. We’re deferring to [opponents] a little too much, instead of being an in-your-face kind of team.”
Jensen also discussed a “10-foot rule,” by which Yale aims to avoid neutral-zone breakdowns. When the puck is within ten feet of the opposing blueline, the Bulldogs must dump it deep into the zone. When it is within ten feet of their own blueline, they must create a turnover. Jensen mentioned a number of occasions on which Yale forwards were halted at the blueline because they were stickhandling too much.
Sound neutral-zone play is key to any winning team, and takeaways between the bluelines can ignite a struggling offense. The Bulldogs are sure to address this problem before they meet UConn this Saturday, and if they fix it, it will allow Modelski to play like a mortal again.
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