With the hockey world still reeling from Wednesday’s cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season, the Yale men’s hockey team (4-19-2, 3-14-1 ECAC) will take to the ice at Ingalls Rink this weekend to face Vermont (16-11-3, 10-6-2) and Dartmouth (14-9-2, 11-7-0), unaffected by the professional game’s cloudy future.

Of the 20 players on the Bulldog roster, just one — Captain Nick Shalek ’05 — is a senior, and he does not plan to play to play professional hockey. And with the NHL on an indefinite hiatus, the freshmen, sophomores and juniors who comprise Yale’s ever-improving lineup can focus exclusively on college hockey.

For Yale, however, living in the here and now has not been pleasant this year. The team has spent the entire season in last place in the ECAC and, for the third home weekend in a row, will face a pair of teams from the top half of the conference.

Three weeks ago the team battled Brown, which is sixth in the conference, and third-place Harvard, losing both games 5-3 because of terrible penalty killing. Last week Yale played second-place Colgate and league leader Cornell. The Bulldogs struggled in the first period of each game, recovering against the Red Raiders to salvage a scoreless tie but not against the Big Red, which edged Yale 5-2.

Now the Elis host Vermount and Dartmouth, which are tied for fourth place in the conference. Each team has the ability to score quickly. The Catamounts boast the ECAC’s individual leading scorer, forward Scott Mifsud, while the Big Green have the top team output, scoring 3.32 goals per game.

“I expect the opposite of what we had last weekend,” center Nate Jackson ’06 said, contrasting the nitty-gritty styles of Colgate and Cornell with the faster finesse play of Vermont. “Vermont’s a great scoring team with a high-powered offense. They put up quite a few goals against us last game. Dartmouth’s considered a defensive team, but they have a pretty good offense, too. The games will be pretty wide-open and fast-paced, not as stuffy as last weekend.”

In addition to Mifsud, a 5-foot-8 senior who netted a hat trick in UVM’s 7-1 victory over Yale Nov. 6, the Catamounts have a dangerous freshman forward in Torrey Mitchell. Mitchell, a Quebec native who came to Vermont via the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the fourth round of last June’s NHL draft. At 5-foot-11, Mitchell is another undersized forward who prefers to skate around defensemen, not through them.

Defenseman Bill LeClerc ’07 noted that containing Vermont’s team speed will be a focal point of the Yale defense.

“The first time we played Vermont it was the beginning of the season,” LeClerc said. “We weren’t really together as a team defensively. They have pretty good speed, so we need to keep them outside and minimize the scoring chances from the slot and the odd-man rushes we gave up last weekend against Cornell.”

Despite playing most of the season without its top player, 6-foot-6 winger Hugh Jessiman (ankle injury), who is the New York Rangers prized prospect, Dartmouth has gotten a ton of scoring from the forward line of Lee Stempniak, Mike Oullette and Nick Johnson. Defenseman Garrett Overlock has also contributed offensively, leading all ECAC defensemen with eight goals and garnering the conference’s Player of the Week award last weekend.

Winger Joe Zappala ’06 knows that Yale needs to be careful with Vermont and Dartmouth, but after strong performances in recent weeks, he is not worried about the defense.

“We definitely have two good offenses coming in, but we’ve been playing good defense too, so I don’t expect that we’ll be giving up too many goals,” Zappala said. “Coming down the stretch, most teams are focusing more on defense than offense.”

As much as it has improved since starting the season 0-9, Yale took a hit last Friday when it lost center Brad Mills ’07 for the season. Mills leads Yale with 23 points and has been Mr. Everything for the Elis all year, logging time as a power-play scorer, a penalty killer and a face-off specialist.

Jackson stepped into Mills’ role last weekend and scored a goal in the Cornell game, something that gave the junior some needed confidence.

“[There is] pressure, yeah, of course,” Jackson said. “Mills was a our most consistent scorer all year. Losing him is definitely going to hurt our offense. But I consider myself an offensive player. I’m not saying I can step up and fill his role immediately, but it’s a good opportunity for me.”

Zappala disagreed. For all that Mills has been for Yale, Zappala thinks the power play won’t skip a beat with Jackson.

“We’re trying to make sure we keep their penalty kill on their toes,” Zappala said. “Nate brings a different aspect of the game to our line. He’s not a big guy, but he’s got great vision, and he’s a great play-maker. It allows me to just focus on doing things with my size.”

Thinking optimistically about Jackson’s play-making potential, Zappala paused to opine about the remainder of Yale’s season, which will feature no more home games after this weekend.

“If we can shut these guys down, we’ll send a message letting everyone know we’re not the same team that we were at the beginning of the season,” he said.