As the clock wound down at the men’s hockey game Saturday night, one question remained unsettled by the scoreboard: Which side did Captain Freedom root for?

Captain Freedom, the American flag-garbed Yale hockey fan — part of a DKE fraternity tradition dating back to 1979 — may have struggled internally as the Bulldogs (3-3-3, 2-2-3 ECAC) took on the Under-18 USA National Team at the Whale this weekend in an exhibition game. There was no ambiguity, however, about the score, as the U-18 team took home a 2-1 victory on a night that the Elis did not play at their best.

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“I didn’t think it was one of our stronger showings,” forward Mike Karwoski ’09 said. “We didn’t generate as much offense as we normally do. Sometimes there’s just an off night.”

Coming off a gritty 3-3 tie against No. 15 Harvard (6-2-1, 5-2-1) on Wednesday night — which head coach Keith Allain ’80 said showed the Bulldogs’ unwillingness to quit — the squad could not find a way to muster another comeback this weekend.

Although the Elis took an early lead with a Matthew Thomey ’08 goal at 4:30, Team USA responded at 15:28 with a backhanded goal by center Patrick Gaul to knot the score at one. The visitors then converted a power play opportunity two minutes later, knocking the puck through the legs of netminder Alec Richards ’09 to pull ahead, 2-1.

The next two periods were all about containing the Bulldogs for Team USA, who held on to their edge for the remaining 42 minutes. US netminder Joe Cannata had a superb outing, stopping 23 of 24 shots on the night. The Bulldogs’ most-likely scoring chances came late in the third period, but Cannata helped his squad survive a five-on-three power play at 15:55 and stopped a Broc Little ’11 penalty shot with 48 seconds left.

The Bulldogs are still winless in the all-time series against the U-18 team. Saturday’s loss dropped Yale’s overall record to 0-3-1 against the squad, which is part of the US National Team Development program and features talented young hockey players who usually go on to careers in the NCAA and the NHL. Three members of the current Eli squad are alumni of the NTDP, and team USA goaltender Nick Maricic is listed on the roster as a Yale recruit.

“[NTDP] always has some of the best talent in the country even though [the players] are much younger than we are,” captain Will Engasser ’08 said.

Because the game does not count towards the Bulldogs’ overall record or season statistics, Allain was able to give looks to a number of players on the roster who have not seen much playing time this season.

Fans at Ingalls Rink also witnessed the return of Richards between the pipes. Richards, who started nearly every contest in his freshman and sophomore seasons, was sidelined early this season with an injury and has only recently started dressing for games again. He had 15 stops in 34 minutes, before rookie goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 made seven saves in relief.

“It was good to give those guys ice time again,” Karwoski said. “Come playoff time, we’re going to need all of our players to be functioning and skating well.”

The Bulldogs are back in action next Saturday afternoon, when they host travel partner Brown (1-5-3, 1-2-3) at the Whale at 4 p.m. The Elis are hoping to improve their ECAC record with a win over the Bears, the squad’s last conference opponent in 2007.