After momentarily grabbing attention as a possible league threat, the men’s hockey team is back to its familiar unassuming role in the ECAC. But with the playoffs approaching, anonymity may be just what the Bulldogs need.

The Elis (8-18-3, 6-14-2 ECACHL) travel to Union (16-14-6, 9-9-4) for a best-of-three series in the first round of the ECAC playoffs. Yale and Union split the season series, with the home team winning both games.

After Yale’s disastrous end to the regular season, expectations are low. But forward Joe Zappala ’06 said the Elis might thrive in the underdog role.

“This is a new season with no expectations,” Zappala said. “Hopefully they’ll take us lightly and we’ll be able to turn it on, and get that fire in the eye.”

While not experiencing as dramatic of a tailspin as the Bulldogs, the Dutchmen enter the postseason with little momentum. The Dutchmen have dropped three of their last four games, and have scored an average of less than one goal during that span.

If both teams continue their recent offensive trends, the matchup may be a low-scoring affair. While the Bulldogs rank fifth in the league in scoring, with 2.92 goals a game, the numbers are padded by high-scoring games earlier in the year. More telling is the Bulldogs’ scoring drought, especially on the road. The Elis have scored seven goals in their last six road games combined.

Yale head coach Tim Taylor said the team’s offensive struggles are not a result of poor play.

“We took 41 shots [in the game against Princeton] and they must have blocked another 20 shots,” Taylor said. “We need to find a way, we’re snake-bitten when it comes to scoring.”

Given the offensive struggles, the Elis will need to rely even heavier on goalie Alec Richards ’09. Richards is coming off his worst performance of the year, allowing four goals before being pulled in the second period in last weekend’s game against Quinnipiac. But that should not erase what has otherwise been a great year for the rookie from Minnesota. Richards is fourth in the ECAC in saves with 724, and needs 116 more to break Yale’s single-season record of 839 set by Alex Westlund in 1998.

Despite the added pressure, Richards said his primary concern is stopping the other team from scoring.

“I only focus on my job, and that is to save shots,” Richards said. “I don’t let anything else affect my game. We have a talented offense, and hopefully it’ll pick up in the playoffs.”

Union counters with a goaltending star of its own. Kris Mayotte is fifth in save percentage and goals-against average, stopping 92 percent of the shots on goal and allowing 2.42 goals per contest. After being exposed in the Jan. 20 loss at New Haven, Mayotte responded three weeks later by stopping 28 out of 29 shots en route to a 5-1 Union victory.

But while expectations are low, that does not mean the Elis have not put pressure on themselves. The Bulldogs are looking to overcome recently poor showings in the playoffs. The Elis were beaten in three games by Dartmouth last year and have lost six straight postseason series. And for the seniors, it is one last shot to erase the painful memory of the 2004 playoffs, when Yale squandered home-ice advantage against St. Lawrence and lost, 4-3, in overtime in both games.

Zappala said Yale’s playoff failings have left a sour taste in the seniors’ mouths.

“Our record in February has been nothing to write home about,” Zappala said. “We know that and we’re fed up. We’ve got senior leadership, a big senior class and we have the hunger.”