The men’s hockey team’s freefall in the ECAC standings couldn’t have come at a worst time. But with four crucial games left, the Elis have a chance to stay afloat in the playoff race.

The Bulldogs (8-14-3, 6-10-2 ECACHL) look to stop their recent skid when they travel to Clarkson (14-13-2, 7-9-2) and St. Lawrence (16-12-2, 10-7-1) this weekend. The Elis have lost four of their last five league games and are heading toward the playoffs, two weeks from now, in a serious tailspin.

Forward Joe Zappala ’06 said despite the setbacks, strong performances in these last four games can put the Bulldogs back on track right in time for the postseason.

“We are all disappointed we let the points get away, but it makes the next four games that much more important,” Zappala said. “We want home ice for the playoffs, and we still control our destiny.”

Though currently ninth in the ECAC, the Elis have time to make one last push up the standings. With 10 teams making the league playoffs and the top four squads getting a first-round bye, the Bulldogs only need to finish seventh to secure home-ice advantage in the preliminary round. The work starts Friday against Clarkson, which is currently eighth, two points ahead of Yale.

The last time the Bulldogs faced Clarkson, the Golden Knights were on the rise in the ECAC. After downing Yale in New Haven, 4-2, on Nov. 12, Clarkson went on to compile a 5-1-1 league record by the end of the month. But since then, the Knights have cooled off considerably, going 3-8-1 in their past 12 league games.

The main cause for their fall has been a weak defense that has allowed nearly four goals a game during this span. After starting in the net at the beginning of the season, junior goalie Kris McNulty has been replaced by sophomore David Leggio. Unfortunately for the Knights, the switch has done little to remedy their goaltending ailments. The pair ranks near the bottom of the league in goals against average and save percentage.

Clarkson’s goaltending issues couldn’t have come at a better time for the Elis, who are trying to jumpstart an offense that has fizzled as of late.

The Bulldogs will need their offense to be in full gear, especially when they face off against St. Lawrence on Saturday. The Saints, fourth in the ECAC, boast the third best offense in the league, averaging 3.33 goals per game. At the heart of the St. Lawrence attack is forward T.J. Trevelyan, whose 40 points are good for first in the league.

In order to hang with the Saints, the Elis will need to work on limiting their power-play minutes and improving on special teams. In their Nov. 11 meeting, St. Lawrence converted four out of eleven power-play opportunities to overcome an early deficit and win, 7-5, in New Haven.

Though the Bulldogs have had trouble scoring lately, just as big of a concern is their propensity to rack up costly penalty minutes. Yale ranks first in the ECAC in penalty minutes with 24.2 minutes per game. This combined with the fact that the Bulldogs are 11th in penalty-kills means the Elis must control their play if they have any chance of being competitive in the playoffs.

Forward David Meckler ’09 said the Bulldogs are slowly learning from their mistakes and are working on being more disciplined during games.

“Absolutely, we can overcome our penalty issues,” Meckler said. “We know that the penalties we took hurt our team, and we learned once again that we cannot win a game in the penalty box. I have no doubt that we will play much smarter [this] weekend.”

If the regular season ended today, the Bulldogs would face off against Union in the first round of the playoffs, with the Dutchmen getting the home ice advantage. Union and Yale split the season series, with the home team winning both games.

Yale head coach Tim Taylor said if the Bulldogs are playing at the top of their game, it won’t matter who they face in the playoffs.

“We haven’t been playing up to our standards lately,” Taylor said. “But I don’t think we care who we play in the playoffs. We’re one of the most improved teams in the league this year … and we know we can compete with everyone.”

While much is on the line in this last stretch, Zappala said the key for the Bulldogs is to stay loose and enjoy themselves on the ice.

“It is just a matter or relaxing and having fun,” Zappala said. “Things tend to get a bit tense around the rink these days with the playoff race heating up and school getting right around midterms. Going to the rink has to be a time for us to get away from the books and have fun playing a game we all enjoy.”