Unlike familiar rival monikers such as the Crimson or the Tigers, the Dutchmen and the Engineers do not illicit the same passion and resentment within the Yale student body. But for the men’s hockey team and its fans, including the grads in town for Alumni Weekend, a weekend series against two non-Ivy and non-traditional rivals could not matter more.
The Bulldogs (5-10-2, 4-6-1 ECACHL) look to move up in the league standings this weekend at home against Union (11-9-4, 4-4-2) and RPI (10-10-3, 4-4-3), who are one and two points ahead of the Elis, respectively. A weekend sweep could vault the Bulldogs into the top half of the league, while two losses would not only snap Yale’s recent hot streak, but could effectively bury their season.
“This is a fabulous opportunity for our team to regain the recognition we deserve by moving up the standings,” forward Blair Yaworski ’08 said. “If we can generate a home sweep … we would gain some attention within the league after the lackluster start our team suffered at the beginning of the season.”
The Bulldogs head into this critical weekend riding a five-game ECAC unbeaten streak. But if it weren’t for a few defensive breakdowns in their tie against Brown last weekend, the Elis would be flexing a five-game winning streak. As a result, the focus in this week’s practice has been tightening up a defense that allowed a weak Bears’ offense to overcome three separate deficits.
“We really need to bear down on defensive mistakes,” defender Brennan Turner ’09 said. “When there’s no communication in the defensive zone, there’s going to be breakdowns. We play defense first, which means we need communication there first, and then it should continue forward up the ice.”
Another issue the Brown game revealed was Yale’s often cramped and ineffective offensive attack. Forward David Meckler ’09 said the key to creating scoring chances is to spread the alignment out.
“We have been working on our down-low work in the offensive zone,” Meckler said. “[Union and RPI] take away your space in the offensive zone, and we need to work as a unit to make space and create opportunities for ourselves.”
This is not to say the weekend’s opponents do not bring their own set of unique challenges. Union was riding an 11-game unbeaten streak before falling to league leading St. Lawrence at home last Saturday. Their recent success is due in large part to stellar goaltending by Kris Mayotte. Mayotte (2.54 GAA, .913 SP, 11-8-3) is third in the conference in save percentage and has posted five shutouts so far this season.
Turner said overcoming a hot goaltender is a matter of second and third chance opportunities off of loose pucks and rebounds.
“We have to make sure we get someone in front of the net,” Turner said. “Most goalies don’t save the shots they can’t see, so we need pressure in front of their net at all times.”
While Union’s defense will test Yale’s offensive patience on Friday, slowing down RPI’s scoring weapons will be the Bulldogs’ number one priority on Saturday. RPI features two of the three top scorers in the ECAC, including league leader Kevin Croxton. Croxton is number one in points and points per game, with 30 and 1.43, respectively. The senior forward is complemented by fellow blueliner Oren Eizenman, who has 28 points.
Yaworski said physical contact should be able to slow down the RPI offense.
“We have to be aware of Croxton at all times when he is on the ice,” he said. “He is a strong offensive player, but strong defensive pressure and lots of hard hits and body contact can cripple the best of hockey players.”
Yale must take advantage of a golden opportunity on their home ice to move past two comparable opponents in the standings. After the weekend series, the Elis only have four more home games, but eight on the road. And as if the games themselves do not put enough pressure on Yale as it is, the Bulldogs will be playing in front of a rink chock full of alumni.
But as forward Joe Zappala ’06 said, the festivities of Alumni Weekend should only give the team more incentive to put on their best show.
“You always want to play well in front of the alumni and let them know you are keeping the tradition alive down at Ingalls,” he said. “All those guys who come back for this worked hard for four years, and they shouldn’t expect anything less from us. And we shouldn’t expect anything else from ourselves either.”