Talk about a statement.
Despite jumping out to a 7-3 overall record, the men’s hockey team entered winter break relatively untested against the nation’s elite teams. Four straight games against nationally ranked squads gave the Bulldogs (11-4, 6-2 ECAC Hockey) an opportunity to prove themselves, and by winning three of those four matchups, as well as one at Harvard (4-11-3, 4-6-3), the Elis have proven themselves to be a national contender.
An 8-3 loss to then-No. 16 Nebraska-Omaha (13-7-3) at Ingalls Rink on Dec. 29 was a disappointing start to a tough three-game home stretch, especially since Yale found itself in the lead at three different points in the game. But head coach Keith Allain’s squad bounced back in impressive fashion with consecutive 3-2 wins against No. 14 Air Force (15-4-1) and Minnesota State (10-10-3), which was ranked No. 17 at the time. The Bulldogs remained hot once ECAC play resumed last weekend with another one-goal victory against No. 15 Dartmouth (10-6) on the road and a 6-2 win against archrival Harvard in Boston.
Center Brian O’Neill ’12 and right winger Broc Little ’11 led the Elis on offense with four goals each in the five total games. Little’s short-handed goals against Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota State make him the nation’s leader, with four so far this season.
As Yale’s starting goaltender changed from game to game, the team’s depth in the net was apparent. Ryan Rondeau ’11 had a pair of wins against Minnesota State and Air Force, while Alec Richards ’09 looked impressive against Dartmouth but struggled late in the loss to Nebraska-Omaha. Billy Blase ’10, not to be outdone, made 32 saves against Harvard, replacing Richards, who missed the game due to illness, and an injured Rondeau.
The team’s recent success does not come as a surprise for Allain, who is confident in his team’s ability when they are playing their best.
“We have a strong belief that if we do our job every day and prepare on a daily basis, the success will come in the games, regardless of who the opponent is,” Allain said. “We certainly feel that we have a chance of beating anybody.”
Yale’s most impressive win came at Ingalls Rink on Jan. 4 against Air Force, who was ranked No. 11 in the nation prior to the loss. Rondeau — who had 29 saves on the day — and the Yale defense held the Falcons to two goals, two under Air Force’s nation-best four goals per game average, on the way to a comeback win in their final non-conference game of the season.
Right winger Sean Backman ’10, left winger Denny Kearney ’11 and O’Neill all scored, with the latter two goals coming on the man advantage.
The visitors took the lead through a Jacques Lamoureux goal midway through the first period. Despite being outshot by the Bulldogs 15-4, in the second period, Air Force would have doubled its lead midway through the frame had Eli left defenseman Ryan Donald ’10 not stepped in front of an empty net to block a shot by Lamoureux.
The Bulldogs finally tied the score with two minutes left in the period when right defenseman Mike Matczak ’11 took a pass from left winger Jeff Anderson ’11 and blasted a slapper from the blue line that deflected off O’Neill and into the net.
Backman gave the home team the lead at 4:11 in the third period when he banged a rebound through the legs of Air Force netminder Andrew Volkening from in front of the net. Lamoureux leveled things for the Eagles give minutes later on the power play, but Kearney’s power play goal at 13:22 gave the Elis a lead they would preserve until the final horn sounded.
Defense has been key for the Bulldogs during their four-game winning streak. After giving up eight goals to Nebraska-Omaha, the Elis have only conceded seven goals in four games.
“After the UNM game, it was a wake-up call defensively, and I think it was a good thing for us,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think we changed anything specifically in terms of strategy … everyone was just more aware of their responsibilities in our own zone.”
Yale’s four-game winning streak comes at just the right time, as key ECAC matchups with division leaders Princeton (13-5-0, 8-4-0) and Cornell (11-1-3, 6-0-2) are looming later this month.
Regardless of how confident the team was entering the season, Kearney acknowledged that the team’s great play during the last four games has given the team a swagger.
Allain added that a great team game has been the key to his squad’s success so far, and that in order to be successful later on in the season, players will have to retain this team-oriented mindset.
The Bulldogs continue ECAC play by welcoming Clarkson (3-13-4, 1-6-1) and St. Lawrence (10-9-1, 2-5-1) to Ingalls Rink this weekend.