The men’s hockey team surpassed everyone’s expectations this season — except perhaps its own — by winning its first ever ECAC Tournament Championship and earning its first berth to the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-’98 season.

And with a number of experienced starters returning next season, the Bulldogs look poised to build upon this year’s successes.

Yale was picked to finish seventh in the ECAC conference in pre-season polls at the beginning of this season, but the Bulldogs will likely be considered the favorites to repeat as regular season conference champions.

The Elis will lose four seniors – captain and forward Matt Nelson ’09, forward Patrick Brosnihan ’09, defenseman Dave Inman ’09, and third-team All-ECAC netminder Alec Richards ’09.

But, on the bright side, Yale will return its top six leading scorers and its top 10 point leaders. The Bulldogs will look to replace Richards in net, but they have two experienced goalies in Billy Blase ’10 and Ryan Rondeau ’11. Blase has played in 33 career games, while Rondeau has played in eight.

“We will obviously miss Al after the year that he had, but both returning guys having experience is huge for us,” left winger Denny Kearney ’11. “Whomever is in goal for us next year, our team can have total confidence in him giving us a great chance to win.”

The team will be led by a talented group of six rising seniors, which includes first-team All-New England selection Mark Arcobello ’10, as well as second-team All-ECAC selections Sean Backman ’10 and Tom Dignard ’10.

“The rising senior class is a great group that has matured quite a lot in their time here at Yale,” head coach Keith Allain said. “They have been instrumental in changing the culture of our hockey program and I know they take the responsibility of leadership very seriously.”

Allain, who was named national coach of the year by College Hockey News, will return for his fourth season at the helm of his alma mater.

After clinching the ECAC regular season title in the second-to-last game of the season, the Elis won the ECAC Tournament Championship in Albany, N.Y., with a 5-0 victory over Cornell. The team ultimately fell to Vermont — who face overall-top seed Boston University tonight in the second semifinal game of the Frozen Four – in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 4-1, but gained valuable experience that it will be able to use in the 2009-’10 campaign.

“Those experiences help us moving forward to next season,” right defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11 said. “We know what it takes to win. Also, we know that we have played in and won big games, and I think that will help our confidence.”

Allain added, “The experience of tournament play is very important to what we are trying to build here. When competitive people get a taste of success they become even more driven to experience it again. I believe every member of our team is totally committed to doing the work necessary in order to compete for a championship again next season.”

As for the team’s expectations, players have their sights set high.

“With the success we’ve had this year, obviously our expectations for next year are the same, if not higher,” Arcobello said. “We are returning a lot of top players, and with the added experience of the NCAA Tournament, we expect to make a serious run at it.”