Going into the weekend’s games against the Rensselaer Engineers and the Union Dutchmen, Yale sat in eighth place in the ECACHL, three points ahead of both of its opponents and within striking distance of upper-echelon teams, Cornell and Colgate. This was the Bulldogs’ chance to prove they belonged in the top half of the league.

After two heartbreaking losses, the standings show Yale in tenth place in the twelve-team league, but the jury is still out as to whether the team belongs there.

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Whether or not the Elis deserve to be in the league’s dog house, most referees believe they deserve to spend a good chunk of every game in the penalty box. Being the most penalized team in the nation at 24.1 min per game certainly has not helped them.

Penalties have been a problem all year for the Bulldogs, who have racked up 343 penalty minutes in 14 league games, compared to 261 for their opponents. With opponents converting on 16 percent of power plays, Yale has done a fairly good job of shutting down these opportunities (25th in the nation), but would obviously be better served by playing more 5-on-5 hockey. To be down a man so often — upwards of 20 minutes each game — is really just asking for something to go wrong.

Though not hot at the moment — the Bulldogs have gone winless for five straight — there is no question that this team is playing hard. In both weekend games, Yale out-hustled and out-hit its opponents. But they never appeared to be in total control, giving their opponents the chance to score on somewhat fluky plays.

Against the Engineers on Friday, a shot rebounded directly to a Rensselaer player, who shot a soft knuckle-puck that may have been redirected off a Yale defender’s jersey, somehow finding its way through Richards.

On the second goal, Rensselaer’s Andrei Uryadov sprung from the penalty box at just the right moment to receive a pass behind the Yale defenders. Richards stopped his shot, but a Yale defenseman slid into Richards in his efforts to stop Uryadov, preventing Richards from blocking the second shot.

Simple bad luck would certainly explain these goals individually, but Yale has seemed to be experiencing a lot of bad luck recently in a 0-4-1 slide.

“We started out really well, 6-1, and we’ve only won two games since then,” defenseman Dave Inman ’09 said. “I can’t explain it, but we’re definitely a streaky team.”

Another reason behind this skid is that Yale has been yielding a greater number of odd-man rushes than its opponents, forward Mark Arcobello ’10 said.

“We lose the puck in the offensive zone, and I feel like every time, it’s a 3-on-2 the other way,” he said. “We’re just losing battles near the blue line and turning the puck over in bad places.”

Even the casual fan doesn’t need Barry Melrose to tell them that a team’s chances of scoring vastly increase when there are more of your guys than their guys, as on power plays or in moments of transition.

During transition periods such as when Rensselaer tallied its go-ahead goal in the second period, defenders and back-checking forwards must either make great individual plays to stop these rushes or commit penalties out of desperation, perpetuating an even greater period of imbalance.

If the defender fails to make a play, the goalie must handle high-quality shots and rebounds, generally with traffic in front of the net.

Although Richards acknowledges the added pressure of the odd-man rush, he relishes the opportunity as a goaltender.

“I get excited when I get a lot of opportunities to make saves,” Richards said. “I don’t look at it as a burden.”

But on Saturday, despite a great effort by Richards all night, it became a burden. Union’s first goal came in the confused aftermath of a 3-on-2 rush as an opportunistic Union player banged home a loose puck.

The Dutchmen were not the only players to capitalize on Yale’s penalty trouble. Against Rensselaer, forwardMike Karwoski ’09 was forced to commit a penalty on the back-check to keep an opposing player from scoring 3:36 into the second period, which the Engineers cashed in for their first goal.

If the Elis’ only penalties came in these kinds of necessary situations, they would be fine. Too often, they take roughing and fighting penalties, which, however imposing to the other team, are the result of overly physical and emotional play. A roughing penalty on Robert Burns ’07 led to Union’s second goal on the ensuing power play.

Although frequent trips to the penalty box are characteristic of a young, physical team, underclassmen should learn from the example of experienced defenseman and team captain, Matt Cohen ’07, who delivered the pain without a penalty all weekend. In a heated moment in the third period, a Union player charged the net at the whistle until Cohen coolly showed him a seat on the ice in front of the Yale students’ section.

Yale’s play has perpetuated a physical and almost thuggish identity for this team, one that may obscure their status as a potential top team. Leading scorer Sean Backman ’10 believes they have somehow gotten away from the more desirable reputation.

“I think we created our identity earlier in the year when we were 14th in the country, and we just haven’t gotten back to it,” Backman said. “Although I think we played like that [Saturday] night.”

Coincidentally, the team served only 14 penalty minutes against Union. While many Yalies have found success by thinking outside the box, this team may find it simply by staying outside the box.