Based on pre-season ECAC rankings, the men’s hockey team is so far the surprise of the season. But if you ask players and coaches, their success this season is not all that unexpected.

The No. 18 Bulldogs (15-5-1, 10-3-1 ECAC) defeated No. 9 Princeton (15-6, 9-5) and in-state rival Quinnipiac (14-10-2, 7-5-2) in a pair of hard-fought victories this weekend at Ingalls Rink, putting them in a tie for first place in the ECAC with No. 4 Cornell.

Not bad for a team picked to finish sixth by coaches and eighth by the media in the preseason rankings for the 12-team ECAC conference.

“This team had high expectations going into this season,” right winger Sean Backman ’10 said. “We’re happy with the way we’re playing right now, but I don’t think we’ve hit our peak yet.”

Backman had two goals and an assist in a 3-1 victory against the Tigers on Friday, while forwards Patrick Brosnihan ’09, Mark Arcobello ’10 and Broc Little ’11 all scored as the Bulldogs blanked Quinnipiac 3-0 on Saturday night.

Alec Richards ’09 made 32 saves in a strong outing against Princeton and followed up with a 31-save effort against the Bobcats in Yale’s first shutout of the season.

The visiting Tigers played the Elis close on Friday, but a last-minute goal by Backman sealed yet another impressive victory for Yale.

Backman gave his team the lead at 13:46 in the first period, much to the delight of the first of two sellout crowds at Ingalls. After killing off a 5-on-3 midway through the opening frame, center Brian O’Neill ’12 found himself stuck on the boards in the offensive zone, yet managed to find Arcobello in front of the net with a no-look backhand. The junior center’s shot was stopped by Princeton netminder Zane Kalemba, but Backman was there for the rebound, wristing a shot into an open net before Kalemba could recover to his weak side.

Princeton responded less than a minute into the second period with a goal from senior forward Brett Wilson. Center Lee Jubinville drew a few Yale defenders with some deft stickwork before leaving Wilson with an open look at the net for a top-shelf finish. But Yale capitalized on a 5-on-3 of its own in the final minutes of the period, as Arcobello knocked in a rebound from a tight angle near the left corner of the rink.

Despite a variety of quality chances in the third period, the Tigers still found themselves trailing by a goal with less than two minutes left in the game.

A costly charging penalty at 18:40 killed any chance of a comeback for the visitors, enabling Backman to score his second of the game just seven seconds later. Little stole the puck off a face-off in Princeton’s zone and found left winger Denny Kearney ’11, who skated towards the goalie before feeding Backman for a tap-in on the open weak side of Kalemba’s net.

As Backman ecstatically sprinted over to the Yale student section and the crowd erupted in cheers, one thing was clear: The Bulldogs were having fun. The victory was especially sweet considering that Princeton defeated the Bulldogs four times last year.

After the game, head coach Keith Allain attributed the close victory to his team’s strong work ethic.

“We have a really good group of kids,” he said. “You see them on Friday and Saturday, but you should see the way they compete with each other in practice.”

The Elis’ competitive practices may have helped them compete for an intense 60 minutes. Despite being outshot for only the second time this season, Yale made the best of its scoring chances in a physical New Haven county derby that saw a combined 74 penalty minutes.

After a scoreless first period, Brosnihan lit the lamp for the home team with a rocket slap shot from the point. In what he would later call an “out of body moment,” Brosnihan — who is not known as a prolific scorer — found the top shelf at 3:43 to notch his third goal of the season.

From then on, things got physical. There were eight combined penalties in the latter half of the period — including two 10-minute misdemeanor penalties — as well as a slew of hard cross checks.

And amid the physicality, another Yale goal only added fuel to the fire.

Backman picked up his own deflected shot and drew a few Bobcat defenders before finding Arcobello in front of the net with a back pass for a low slap-shot goal at 12:49.

Little rounded out the scoring for the Bulldogs midway through the final frame with a great personal effort. The New Hampshire native carried the puck down the left boards, before beating a Bobcat defender with a quick cut and heading towards Quinnipiac netminder Dan Clarke’s net. Although there was commotion in front of the net, Little patiently traversed the front of the goal before going five-hole for his 12th goal of the year.

Yet after the game, it was Yale’s strong defensive performance that stuck out for players and coaches.

After the Elis conceded a combined seven goals in two victories the week before, Allain had emphasized defense and goal-tending during practice last week. And it certainly paid off.

“Our goaltending was outstanding, and we did a great job defensively,” he said after Saturday’s game.

The Bulldogs have now won eight of their last 10, and they are 6-1 against ranked opponents on the season (their only loss came against then-No. 16 Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 29). The team welcomes Harvard and Dartmouth to Ingalls Rink on Friday and Saturday for a pair of 7 p.m. contests.