At yesterday’s men’s hockey game, fans in the students’ section mugged for the ESPNU camera with the sign “vEteran Savvy Propels #Nine bUrns.” For the first time all season, it really seemed as if the whole team was propelled by this “vEteran Savvy”.

On an afternoon when the team celebrated the careers of six seniors, Yale gave an inspired effort in possibly the most exciting game of the season. And yet, the veterans were again disappointed as a Dartmouth goal with just over five minutes remaining denied Yale’s chances of locking up an Ivy title.

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In the past three years, the Class of 2007 has finished 1-9, 1-9 and 3-5-2 in Ivy League play, never finishing higher than second-to-last. Going into yesterday’s game at 6-2-1, a win could have guaranteed at least a share of the Ivy League title, something the Bulldogs had never even sniffed at before. Despite losing on Sunday, Yale could still tie for the title if Cornell loses to either Dartmouth or Harvard next weekend. Cornell is the favorite in both games, but in the up-and-down Ivy League, anything is possible.

Judging from the way the Elis played against Dartmouth, the team wanted the title now, and badly. Besides outshooting the Big Green, 53-30, they also out-physicaled and out-hustled them. For the 49 minutes in between the first five and the last six, Yale played with the smarts and patience of a veteran team, as if every player had willed himself to follow the example of its seniors.

One sign of experience was Yale’s ability to rally from a two-goal deficit in the opening period. The Bulldogs bounced back with a 23-shot onslaught in the second period that yielded two Yale goals, the first of which was assisted by captain Matt Cohen ’07. Sean Backman ’10 credits the seniors, as well as the coaches, with strong locker room leadership.

“[The seniors] are the guys between periods trying to get the team going,” Backman said.

Another sign that the Elis have matured as a team was their ability to stay out of the box. Yale only incurred two penalty minutes all game, a sharp contrast to the 54 taken in Friday’s win against Harvard, and well below their season average of 24.4 minutes.

To dwell on this one game, however, would be to not acknowledge how far this team has come in four years. This year’s senior class suffered through a 5-25-2 sophomore campaign, one of the worst in program history. After three years of genuinely dismal play against league opponents, the team has finally shown itself able to put up victories against its toughest rivals in assembling a 6-3-1 record, including two lopsided romps over Harvard.

Despite his intense disappointment with Sunday’s result, Brad Mills ’07 was proud of the team’s progress.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, lost guys to pro, and we’ve had struggles,” Mills said. “But it’s been really exciting and encouraging to turn ourselves around like this. I think we’ve helped changed the culture of this team.”

Though the members of the Class of 2007 may be gritty leaders and fan-favorites, they simply do not have the offensive firepower of the Class of 2010. Four of the team’s five top scorers are freshmen. Defenseman Bill LeClerc ’07 ranks third with 15 points. In the long run, the seniors’ greatest contribution this year may have been to show the freshmen what it takes to win. Defenseman Ryan Donald ’10 credits the upperclassmen with setting good team chemistry.

“They’re there for us as freshmen,” Donald said. “They’ve welcomed us to their house whenever. They’ve done a lot to establish the great camaraderie on this team.”

The last rookie to lead the team in scoring was Chris Higgins with 31 points in the 2001-’02 season. With at least two games left, Backman, who already has 29 points, might surpass him. Mark Arcobello ’10 is also not far behind with 22 points. All this production so early is great for Yale hockey, but might be a mixed blessing — Higgins left the team for the NHL after his sophomore season and now plays for the Montreal Canadiens.

So now, the biggest question looking toward the future is if some of the Class of 2010 will be leaving with the Class of 2007 for the draft. But Donald said he does not expect his classmates to depart anytime soon.

“I’ve talked with all the guys about it,” Donald said, “and everyone is planning to stay for the full four years as of now. Things like this sometimes change, but right now, everyone seems to be more interested in the value of their Yale diploma.”

While college basketball teams worry about losing their six-foot-nine-inch stars, all Yale has to worry about is losing its five-foot-nine-inch (160 pound) stars. It’s just another reason to value the guys who have stayed with the program for four years and made such valuable contributions.