Despite the men’s hockey team’s recent success, skepticism remains even among the most loyal of fans. And while their seven-game league unbeaten streak is definitely putting the Elis back on the hockey map, the general consensus is that the ride will come to an abrupt halt this weekend in New York against the class of the ECACHL.
But for forward Joe Zappala ’06 and the rest of the Bulldogs, the negativity is just fine with them.
“We have been shut out since last year, and haven’t done much to change people’s minds until now,” Zappala said. “It’s OK, let them underestimate us. We want to keep improving and be playing our best hockey of the year when playoffs come, and let the chips fall where they may.”
After building an impressive streak against the middle and bottom half of the pack, the Elis (7-10-2, 6-6-1 ECACHL) hope to carry momentum into a pair of games against the top two teams in the league. The Bulldogs travel to upstate New York to face league-leading No. 18 Colgate (13-6-5, 9-2-1) before battling defending ECACHL champions No. 5 Cornell (13-4-2, 8-3-1) on Saturday in Ithaca.
“This weekend is to prove that we can play with the best teams in the country and we cannot be taken for granted,” forward Blair Yaworski ’08 said. “After playing many of the lower-half teams it is now time to show that the Yale Bulldogs are here to stay.”
The Bulldogs opened their season back in November against Cornell and Colgate. After hanging tough but falling to the Big Red, 4-2, the Bulldogs came out the next night and were pushed around by the Raiders, 6-2.
Despite dropping both contests, Yale’s outlook after the weekend was more optimistic than discouraged. But after tasting more success in the last few weeks than most of the players have experienced their entire Yale careers, the Elis are not looking for moral victories.
“We are a completely different team now than we were then,” forward Brad Mills ’07 said. “We know what to expect when we face both these teams this weekend. Our improved team defense, along with the first rate goaltending we’ve been getting from [Alec] Richards [’09], will provide us with the opportunity to win both games this weekend.”
While the Bulldogs have used an amazing streak to counteract a poor start, Cornell is doing nothing that is not expected from the perennial power. After embarrassingly dropping back-to-back games against Dartmouth and Union, the defending champion Big Red have lost just once in the past 12 games.
Once again, Cornell is led by star goalie David McKee, who leads the league in goals-against average, allowing a paltry 2.05 scores per contest. In last week’s game against Union, the Bulldogs handled one of the hottest goalies in the league, Kris Mayotte, by crowding the net, rebounding the puck and putting up second- and third-chance shots. The Elis must repeat that gritty performance if they have any chance of beating McKee.
Another key factor is special teams play, a facet of the game in which Cornell has excelled this season. The Big Red’s Matt Moulson leads the league in both power play goals and points, with 10 and 18, respectively. And though Yale struggled with power-plays early on in the season, defender Brennan Turner ’09 said special teams play is one of the most improved areas of the Eli attack.
“Our special teams from the beginning of the year to now are night and day,” he said. “There was a lot of bugs in the system that we’ve now worked out, and we can handle a lot of different situations now. However, we need to stay disciplined if we’re going to want to win.”
The Bulldogs may actually have a better chance this weekend against the first place team. While Colgate is two points ahead of Cornell, the Raiders have been shaky as of late. Earlier in the month Colgate suffered through a six-game winless streak, including three losses. The Raiders hit rock bottom when they fell to perennial bottom-feeders Princeton on Jan. 13. Since then, Colgate has rebounded with a modest three-game win streak but have shown this month that they are far from unbeatable.
That the Elis are even carrying such an optimistic mood into these two games shows just how much the program has changed in the past two months. Perhaps the starkest contrast from the previous years is that it is this late in the season and the Bulldogs are not just playing for pride. With eight games left in the season, the Elis actually have much on the line.
“Everything from here on to the playoffs is about points and trying to get home-ice advantage for the playoffs and maybe even a bye for the first round,” Turner said.
But when most believe they will be dominated this weekend, there is still more at stake for the Bulldogs than just points in the standings.
“Respect is earned,” Mills said. “We know we have something to prove this weekend, and that’s what we plan to do.”