At the end of last season, the men’s hockey team left the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn., with a taste of success, a record-making season and one disappointing defeat.
This season, the hockey team left the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., with a historic victory and a valiant loss, on its way to establishing a tradition of success.
All this year, players and coaches have acknowledged the value of the experience Yale gained during its record-breaking 2008-’09 season, and it seems this experience paid off for the No. 8 Elis, who not only appeared in the NCAA Tournament once again this year, but also won a game against nationally acclaimed powerhouse No. 4 North Dakota.
The taste of defeat is still sour just three days after losing to No. 3 Boston College and failing to secure a trip to the Frozen Four; but the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in over 50 years and impressive performance against the Eagles has earned the Yale team the national credibility it might have lacked after the Bulldogs’ quick exit from the NCAAs last season.
The Elis came from being picked to finish seventh in the ECAC in the pre-season coaches’ poll last season to place as high as fifth in the national rankings, as well as win their first-ever ECAC Tournament Championship on the way to an NCAA Tournament berth in Bridgeport.
The 2009-’10 season brought a new, heightened set of expectations. The ECAC preseason poll decided on Sept. 28 that the Yale team would take the top spot in the league.
In 2008-’09, the Bulldogs had not even been in the national polls until Jan. 12, and from then on it was rare to see “Yale” in the country’s top 10 teams. This season, the Elis were ranked at No. 8 to open the season in October and only dropped out of the top 10 in two November polls. Until the tournament, the Elis had been mainstays among the top six teams since the beginning of January.
But after losing to Brown in the ECAC playoffs and failing to make the ECAC Tournament, Yale dropped to No. 9 and began to embrace the role of the underdog. ESPN all but wrote Yale off as commentators on the Tournament selection show on March 21 predicted a North Dakota-Boston College NCAA final.
When the tournament arrived, the Bulldogs were without injured star right winger Sean Backman ’10, and they still did not have a consistent starter between the pipes. Opponent North Dakota had also won 12 of 13 games on the way to winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Assocation Tournament.
“Not too many people were expecting too much out of us,” captain and defenseman Ryan Donald ’10 said after the North Dakota game. “But I think we did a good job with that role of the underdog tonight, and we played a little bit looser than we might have two weeks ago.”
But while it seemed that the cards were stacked against Yale prior to Saturday’s game against UND, the one thing the Bulldogs had in their arsenal that was missing last year was experience.
“Those experiences help us moving forward to next season,” right defenseman Jimmy Martin ’11 had said after last year’s 4–1 loss to Vermont in the NCAA East Regional. “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.”
Right winger Broc Little ’11 added in this past Friday’s press conference that while the team was happy simply to be in the tournament last season, this year’s squad was focused on winning games and staying in the competition.
The senior class of Backman, Donald, center Mark Arcobello’10, left defenseman Tom Dignard ’10 and goaltender Billy Blase’10 has been at the forefront in changing the style of the hockey program, which saw its winning percentage increase each of the past two seasons before this year’s historic playoff win.
“Sometimes you take it for granted getting to these big games on these big stages, but I recall freshman year when winning was kind of secondary,” Donald said. “We were just happy to slip the jersey on at night. The coaches have done a great job of creating an environment over the last four seasons where we’re expected to win.”
The team itself has demonstrated a winning attitude in the number of late-game comebacks the Elis have pulled off this season.
The Bulldogs rarely stop working before a game ends, leading to eight come-from-behind victories this season. On Feb. 20, they scored three goals in 51 seconds before winning in overtime against a Clarkson goaltender that had shut them down almost all night. The four forward lines never stopped working against Boston College on Sunday, even when they were trailing 9–4 midway through the third period. Yale scored three straight goals to put pressure on the Eagles in the two final minutes of the game.
“There were numerous occasions through the course of the game where they could’ve thrown in the towel, and they never did,” head coach Keith Allain said. “That’s what I’ve come to expect from this group.”
Dignard added: “A lot of teams quit when they’re down by four or five goals. But our guys have a lot of mental toughness, and I’m proud of them for that.”
The players, coaches and Yale fans can only hope for a repeat performance next year. And if the past two years prove anything, it is that the Yale team has the ability to learn from its mistakes and improve its play with each opportunity it gets.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are the future of the program,” Arcobello said after Sunday’s game. “I think the Yale hockey program is going to have a great future and a promising future.”