Heading into last weekend, the men’s hockey team found itself at an early-season crossroads. A poor showing would solidify Yale’s position in the ECACHL basement and signify that perhaps not much has changed from last year’s team after all.
But to almost everyone’s surprise but themselves, the Bulldogs delivered — twice.
On Friday, the Elis (3-8, 2-6 ECACHL) stormed into Rhode Island and picked up their first league win of the year, dispatching Brown, 5-2. Unbeknownst to most, the Bulldogs were not done. Just days later, Yale treated its loyal home fans to an upset over No. 14 Harvard, 4-3.
“I think the Brown win was the first step and Harvard was the second step,” Yale head coach Tim Taylor said. “You can’t really say one win wouldn’t have happened without the other. We just did enough in both games, and that’s what matters.”
Yale stumbled out of the gate against Brown, giving up an early goal in the first period. Just when it seemed like the Bears were going to take control, Eli goalie Alec Richards ’09 came up with two big saves to keep the game 1-0 at the end of the frame. Rather than lose focus, the Bulldogs seem to be re-energized by the fact that they were only down one score despite having played a poor period of hockey.
Yale came out of intermission and immediately seized momentum. Michael Karwoski ’09 tied the game with his first career goal off a pass from Jeff Hristovski ’06. After finishing the second period tied, 2-2, the Bulldogs dominated the final frame, outscoring their opponents 3-0. Jean-Francois Boucher ’07 broke the tie halfway through the third period with his first of two goals on the night. Not to be outdone, Bill LeClerc ’07 increased the lead to 4-2 with his lone score of the night to go with his two assists before Boucher added his last tally.
Defender Brennan Turner ’09 said the key to Yale’s success against Brown was speed and athleticism.
“We effectively used our speed to outplay them,” Turner said. “Their defensemen are kind of slower, so we got the puck in their zone and made them try to play with us.”
On Sunday against Harvard, Boucher and the Bulldogs picked up right where they left off on Friday. The sophomore sensation brought the capacity crowd to its feet with a lightning-quick score just 19 seconds into the first period. Though Harvard would tie the score a few minutes later, Boucher’s wrister past Harvard goalie Justin Tobe set the tone for the rest of the game.
After finishing the first period tied 1-1, the Bulldogs came out in the second frame and played as if they were the nationally ranked squad. Two minutes into the second period, defenseman Matthew Craig gave the Elis a 2-1 lead. Minutes later Karowski notched his second goal and third point of the weekend. The freshmen forward, later named ECACHL Rookie of the Week, treated the Bulldog fans to a glimpse of what is to come in his next for years at Yale.
But just when it seemed like Elis had the game in hand with a 4-1 lead going into the third frame, Harvard made the contest interesting. The Crimson took control of play, outshooting Yale 18-4 in the third frame. After Jon Walsh made it a 4-2 game midway through the period, Charlie Johnson cut the margin to one with less than two minutes left in the game. Johnson’s score quickly silenced the Eli crowd and brought back nightmarish images of the Yale-Harvard game in 2003, when the home Bulldogs saw a 5-1 lead turn into a disastrous 7-5 Crimson comeback.
The Yale faithful shared a big sigh of relief as Richards provided one last big save to preserve the 4-3 win. Though Yale’s offense played well, the story of the game and the whole weekend was the impressive goaltending of the freshman Richards. In two games, Richards allowed just five goals and finished with a staggering 68 saves. His performance not only garnered congratulations from his teammates but also earned him ECACHL Goaltender of the Week Honors. Taylor said Richards’ steady improvement has rubbed off on the entire team.
“I felt we had three goalies who have all proven at some point capable of winning, but it’s just a question of someone getting hot,” Taylor said. “And it appears some good things have happened for young Mr. Richards. He seems to be comfortable with the challenge, and the guys are comfortable with him back there.”
Yale’s win over Harvard was certainly impressive but should not have come as such a big surprise. Despite the lopsided records, the Bulldogs showed they could compete with the Crimson when they took Harvard into overtime on Nov. 11. So even when Harvard made a comeback, Turner said he never felt the game was in doubt.
“We could tell Harvard was getting desperate, but we knew that to win the game, we were just going to have to keep playing the same way we had been all game,” Turner said. “The boys on the bench wanted the win and they played to win. That was the difference.”
Although there is still much work to be done if the Bulldogs want to climb up the ECACHL standings, this weekend’s effort shows that Yale is definitely on the way up. Taylor said that the big difference this weekend was not a monumental change in game plan or style but rather a more consistent effort to do the little things in games.
“I don’t think we played a vastly better game than some of the losses we’ve had this year,” Taylor said. “We had a few less errors and got some winning goaltending. We took care of all those little battles that you have to win to win the game. If we combine that progress with continued intensity and competitiveness we’re going to be a tough team soon.”
Now the challenge is for the Bulldogs to maintain this momentum through a three-week hiatus. Yale does not play until Dec. 29, when the team travels to Minnesota State. Regardless, the Bulldogs head into the break with a high level of confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Captain Christian Jensen ’06 said this renewed energy will make all the difference.
“This gives us some great momentum, and it’s up to us to keep it going,” Jensen said. “I continue to think that we’re an underrated team and I think we’ll continue to surprise people.”
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