Upon hearing that super-injured superstar forward Sean Backman ’10 would miss the NCAA tournament with a foot injury, I panicked. Other Yale students who have followed this year’s team closely might have reacted similarly. Number 16 is a presence on the ice. Not only does he have blazing speed and a surprisingly physical game, but his quick-release wrist shot and booming slap shot make him Yale’s most dangerous scoring threat (with apologies to Broc Little ’11).

Opposing defenses seemingly key in on Backman every game, shifting their defense in his direction and attempting to crowd him on the power play in an attempt to prevent him from firing a wicked slap shot. No team can lose its most potent forward and be just as good. Yale will undoubtedly field a worse team without Backman.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time to jump off the bandwagon.

What made this Yale team special all season was not Sean Backman, it was the team’s tremendous depth. Most teams have two lines worth of “top six” skill forwards, and “bottom six” forwards who bring more toughness than scoring ability to the third and fourth lines of the team. Yale’s fourth line is constantly in flux, but it always features at least one player who is a scoring threat. Their top six forwards are as good as any top six in the country, though Backman’s loss hurts these lines because Mark Arcobello ’10 and Broc Little will start receiving more attention from opposing defenders, who no longer have to keep Backman in their peripheral vision at all times.

But where Yale really gains its advantage is with its unsung heroes: its third line. Third-line players generally fall into two categories: younger players who are not yet “top six” material but are willing to work hard and throw their body around to help the team or veteran grinders who don’t really score but attempt to play solid defense, throw big checks and wear down the other team’s top line.

The Mason-Anderson tandem, two mainstays of Yale’s third line, is unmatchable in what it brings in terms of both skill and size. Jeff Anderson ’11 is listed at 6 feet 2 inches tall, 205 pounds, and Brendan Mason ’10 is stocky and gritty at 5 feet 11 inches tall, 185 pounds. But they’ve combined for 14 goals and 25 points this season, meaning that North Dakota can’t cheat on offense and throw a defenseman into the attack against this third line. If the Fighting Sioux do, Mason and Anderson have the ability to throw a big body check, swing the momentum, and finish on the other end in one decisive shift.

Some kids on campus are still jumping around and celebrating Mason’s game winner at home against Cornell on Nov. 13.

Questions abound about Yale’s goaltending situation and the ability of their top scorers to produce without their ultra-talented senior, but look for Mason and Anderson’s third line to become an X-factor in the tournament, as their size and skill will be crucial against North Dakota.

Fifteen of North Dakota’s forwards and defensemen are 5 feet 11 inches tall or above. Yale only has 11 players of that height. We know players like Ryan Donald ’10 will be able to handle the Fighting Sioux’s physical style, but it falls on third liners like Anderson and Mason to ensure that Yale’s physical play matches North Dakota’s and find ways to keep North Dakota from wearing down Yale’s smaller skill players, like 5-foot-9-inch, 165 pound forwards Arcobello and Little. Look for them to step up to this challenge.

All is not lost for the Backman-less Bulldogs, but in order for them to keep pace with a North Dakota team that has 17 players on its current roster who have been drafted by NHL teams, they’ll need three things. The usual suspects, such as Little and Arcobello, will have to come up huge for the Yale offense. Billy Blase ’10 will have to sparkle in net. And for Yale to compete with the super-talented, supersized, and soon to be super-well-paid North Dakota roster, they’ll need a couple of underappreciated, under-recruited and under-the-radar grinders to throw their bodies around, set a tempo of toughness and maybe even net a timely goal.

Without their most dangerous weapon, the Bulldogs will need to work for a blue-collar, physical, historic upset of a win. For inspiration they need look no farther than their third line.

Correction: March 24, 2010

An earlier version of this article misidentified the graduation year of Billy Blase ’10.

Correction: March 25, 2010

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of NHL draft picks on North Dakota’s roster. It is 17, not 10.