Expectations for the men’s hockey team have never been so high.

The Bulldogs caught everyone by surprise last year. They went from finishing in sixth place the previous season to being both the regular season and ECAC Tournament champions in 2008-’09.

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Although the team bowed out in a disappointing 4-1 loss to Vermont in the NCAA East Regional semifinal in Bridgeport, Conn., last spring, almost all of the key players from last year’s squad have returned this year — and they are ready for more.

“I think we expect more from ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher standard this year,” forward Denny Kearney ’11 said. “We had a great year last year, and hopefully we can do at least as well, if not better, this year.”

Added head coach Keith Allain ’80: “We’re excited about the hockey season. I think that we have something to prove — we just have to get it going.”

But the players and coach aren’t the only ones who have high expectations for this season; so, too, do college hockey experts.

In the most recent USCHO.com/CBS Sports Division I poll, Yale was one of three teams to receive a first-place vote. The Elis are ranked sixth in the nation, one place behind ECAC rival Cornell.

Still, players cautioned that it is too early to look to the polls.

“At this point of the season, those things really mean absolutely nothing,” Kearney said. “Obviously, when it gets closer to tournament time, that’s when it matters a bit more with PairWise rankings [a head-to-head statistical comparison to determine the nation’s top teams] and seeding for the national tournament.”

The Elis — who ended the regular season last year ranked fifth in the nation — are returning with a very similar lineup to last year’s squad, including experienced forward Sean Backman ’10, who was named a pre-season second team All-American earlier this month, and All-American forward Marc Arcobello ’10. Backman led the team last year with 20 goals, while Arcobello was second with 17.

With so many seniors holding important roles both up front and on defense, this season may be Yale’s best chance to win a national title, according to forward Brian O’Neill ’12.

“This is definitely the best chance that we have had,” he said. “We have very good [seniors], and I definitely feel that we have a sense of urgency to get it done this year.”

Although the lineup is largely intact from last season, there is one notable loss — goaltender Alec Richards ’09.

When Richards graduated, he left holding the Yale career save percentage (.923). He was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the spring and is currently playing for the Toledo Walleye, an East Coast Hockey League affiliate of the Blackhawks.

In the team’s first regular-season game against Princeton last Saturday, Ryan Rondeau ’11 saved 40 of the Tiger’s 42 shots — enough to be named ECAC Goalie of the Week. Rondeau appeared in six games last year, recording a .901 save percentage.

Although Rondeau appears to be the frontrunner for the starting netminder job, the Bulldogs have three other goaltenders hoping to receive playing time, including Nick Maricic ’13, who saw 30 minutes of playing time in an exhibition-game win against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology last Friday.

“We’ve got four goaltenders here in the program, and they are all vying to be the starter,” Allain said. “I’m open all year long. Competition for ice time is a big part of who we are, and it’s part of what makes us better.”

The Bulldogs’ 5-2 win over the Tigers did not count as a league game, but Yale’s comeback in the third period — with four goals in the final 16 minutes of play — showed the Elis still have the offensive spark they showed so often last year.

“We have a pretty tough schedule coming up, and it wouldn’t have been good to get started off on the wrong foot especially against a ranked team,” O’Neill said. “It gave us the confidence that we can come back against any team.”

Yale will play Princeton twice more during the regular season, at home on Dec. 5 and at Princeton on Feb. 26.

Outside of the 22-game conference schedule the Elis will undertake starting Friday night at Rensselaer, the Bulldogs are especially looking forward to playing he Vermont Catamounts on Nov. 30.

“They knocked us out of the championship and ended our season last year, so it is going to fun to get another crack at them,” Kearney said.

The Catamounts reached the Frozen Four last year, so the matchup with Yale could be an early indicator of just how far the Bulldogs can go this coming spring.