The hockey team’s season climaxes at Harvard this weekend with the first round of the ECACHL playoffs, in a match with significant historical implications.
Six years ago, the 2000-’01 Elis opened their season with two victories, Yale’s first winning start in three years. That season, the Bulldogs compiled a 14-16-1 record and went 6-3-1 in the Ivy League, winning the title even though they placed in the bottom half of the ECACHL. They met Harvard in Boston in the first round of the playoffs and got swept in the best-of-three series, dashing the hopes of a promising squad that featured Yale’s all-time scoring leader Jeff Hamilton ’01.
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After several subpar seasons in between, this year’s Elis find themselves in a similarly precarious situation. Led in scoring by talented young star Sean Backman ’10, the 2006-’07 Bulldogs were the first team to post a 2-0 start since 2001. They went on to win the Ivy League Championship — with a 6-3-1 record, no less — while finishing in 10th in the ECACHL. And they too, will face perennial rival Harvard in Boston this weekend.
But this time, the Elis hope to set things right.
Under the leadership of first-year head coach Keith Allain — who replaced Tim Taylor, the maestro of the Bulldog bench for 30 years — the Elis (11-15-3, 8-13-1 ECACHL) will be looking to advance to the second round of the playoffs and distinguish themselves from past Yale squads that have faltered in postseason play.
After a roller-coaster season that ended on high note with a win against Rensselaer last weekend, the Bulldogs are certainly up to the challenge. The 10th-seeded Elis will face a Harvard squad (12-15-2, 10-10-2) that they bested twice in regular season play in decisive 5-2 and 5-1 victories. They are only the second Yale hockey team that has managed an away upset at Harvard since 1979 — and the other team to do so went on to win Yale’s first-ever regular season ECACHL championship during the fabled 1997-’98 campaign.
“We know our earlier wins don’t matter because it’s a whole new season, but at the same time we feel confident that we can beat Harvard,” goalie Matt Modelski ’07 said. “We just have to come to the rink ready to play, with the same mentality that we brought against Harvard and Dartmouth this season.”
And although this year’s record against the Crimson does not matter this weekend, the pair of wins set a standard for the style of play the Elis will need to emulate. The Bulldogs scored more goals and converted more power play attempts against Harvard than against any other team they faced this season. Netminder Alec Richards ’09 allowed the Cantabs just three goals, although he faced over 60 shots in the two outings.
The Elis’ most recent victory over the Crimson had added significance because it helped them clinch a share of Yale’s 10th Ivy League hockey crown. The honor was an important vindication of an up-and-down season, in which the Elis fluctuated from the No. 16 team in the country to the last-ranked team in the ECACHL over the course of the winter.
“Everybody has been working hard all year,” forward Mike Karwoski ’09 said. “The title was a good reward for the whole team. We know that our hard work has gone somewhere and done something meaningful.”
But the Cantabs have also tasted success lately. After getting off to a 2-7 start in the fall, Harvard went on a 10-8-2 run to propel itself from the basement to seventh place in the ECACHL. The squad has not lost a game since falling to Yale at Ingalls two weeks ago and pulled off an impressive sweep against Colgate and Cornell in its final regular season homestand.
And despite the scoring discrepancy in their previous meetings, the two teams match up surprisingly well on offense and defense. Seniors Kevin Du and Ryan Maki lead the veteran Crimson forward line, while senior Dylan Reese — who tallied the first Harvard goal against the Elis this season — anchors the blueliners.
Since both squads spent a substantial amount of time in the penalty box when they met during the regular season, special teams will likely factor into the weekend yet again. The Crimson boast the top power play in the conference, but the Bulldogs blanked them on 16 of 18 chances this season, so the edge could go either way.
“We played pretty well both times we played them, and I think that accounted for the decisiveness of the victories,” captain Matt Cohen ’07 said. “But it’s the playoffs now, so we are just going to have to come out and play even better.”