In ECAC men’s hockey, all 12 teams make the playoffs, which begin tonight. The top four seeds enjoy byes during the first round, awaiting the four winners of the games played by the teams seeded 5-12. While they will not have the weekend off like Cornell, Harvard, Colgate and Vermont, fifth-seeded Dartmouth (17-10-2, 14-8-0 ECAC) will have some consolation: they have drawn last-place Yale (4-23-2, 3-18-1).

Indeed it has been a woeful season for the Elis, for whom this season matched the highest loss total in program history. But all can be erased with an upset in this weekend’s three-game series in Hanover, so the players are keeping their spirits up.

“I know we’re better than a [4-23-2] team,” captain Nick Shalek ’05 said. “I know we’ve had bad bounces, but I also know that good teams get lucky for a reason. It’s been a tough season, but the fact that this team has held together and is still working hard and still expecting to go into the playoffs this weekend and win shows that it is a very tough, strong group of guys.”

Shalek may have more to play for than most. A senior who has seen his role on the team expand exponentially this season, Shalek will be fighting to extend his college hockey career.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, he will not have to wage that battle alone. While defenseman Shawn Mole ’07 is out with a concussion he suffered at Rensselaer Saturday, injured top scorers Christian Jensen ’06 (concussion) and Brad Mills ’07 (knee injury), both of whom were out of the lineup when Dartmouth visited on Yale Feb. 19, have been medically cleared to play.

“It’s good to go into the playoffs with all your main guys back,” said forward Jean-Francois Boucher ’08, who, despite playing in front of several friends and family this weekend, said he was not nervous about his first playoff series. “It brings a positive attitude.”

A good week of practice also helps. Not knowing what word to use, Boucher said that Yale, above all else, worked on execution this week. The team has had several slow starts to weekends this season, and head coach Tim Taylor wanted to make sure Yale is crisp tonight from the opening faceoff.

“On Fridays we just plain suck,” Boucher said. “It happened against Colgate [Feb. 11], against UVM [Feb. 18] – we have a problem with starting slow. This weekend, we don’t want to play comeback hockey.”

If the Bulldogs do have a slow start, they might be home for March break before they know what hit them. Dartmouth had the ECAC’s top scoring offense during the regular season, netting 3.38 goals per game, and the conference’s third-best scorer, senior Lee Stempniak. Stempniak is first in voting for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s Heisman, among players from Ivy teams other than Cornell, and he and linemates Nick Johnson and Mike Oullette have combined for six points against the Elis this year. To make matters worse for Yale, Hugh Jessiman, the Big Green’s six-foot-six megastar, is back from the injured ankle that has kept him out of all but six games this year.

That kind of an offense puts extra pressure on either Matt Modelski ’07 or Pete Cohen ’05, Yale’s top two goalies. Having played Modelski most of the year until Cohen posted a 26-save gem against the Big Green when he came on in relief during their last meeting, Taylor had each goalie play last weekend. Each played well, but Boucher guessed that Taylor, who has always kept his cards close to his chest, will give Modelski the starting nod.

“I assume it’s going to be Modelski,” Boucher said. “He’s been the go-to guy. Cohen played real well last weekend, but so did Matt. But the fact that they’re competing for ice-time right now and it’s the playoffs gives them an extra edge, so they’ll all be ready.”

They had better be, or else this seemingly interminable season will finally come to an end.