The pursuit of a national championship begins tonight for the men’s hockey team.

The Bulldogs stunned the college hockey world in March when they upset second-seeded North Dakota, at the time the hottest team in the country, 3–2 in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals before falling the next day to eventual national champion Boston College, 9–7. The Elis are two-time defending ECAC regular season champions, and clinched the ECAC Tournament title in 2008-’09. This season, they’re looking to go all the way.

“Our goal is to win the national championship,” captain Jimmy Martin ’11 said. “We’ve had a taste and we know what a good feeling it can be to win a game in a tournament. We know how hard we have to work to win games in college hockey.”

The men’s hockey team has transformed since head coach Keith Allain ’80 took the helm in April 2006. The Blue went 10–20–3 in their final season before Allain entered the program, but turnaround under the new coaching staff came quickly. In 2008-’09 — the team’s third year with Allain — the Elis posted a record-setting 24 wins, captured the ECAC regular season championship for only the second time in the league’s 47-year history, and secured their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997.

This season, the Bulldogs rank fifth in the USCHO poll and are expected to earn their third consecutive ECAC championship, according to the preseason ECAC media poll.

“Simply put, we went from a program that was hoping to win to one that was expecting to win,” head coach Keith Allain told the News in May. “When we came in we had a vision of what we wanted our team to be, and then our guys rolled up their sleeves and went to work.”

Known for unconventional recruitment of small, quick forwards to the program, Allain has fashioned a Yale squad that last year rode the speed of its attack to the highest goals per game average in the nation. That recruiting strategy means Yale players are not typically the sort to get early interest from the NHL. The North Dakota team that Yale beat last year boasted 16 professional draft picks while Yale had none.

Forwards Broc Little ’11 and Brian O’Neill ’12, last year’s top two scorers, are expected to keep up the offensive pace this season. Little notched 27 goals and 41 points last season, while O’Neill led the team with 45 points on 16 goals. The pair will look to work off the passes of Denny Kearney ’11 and Andrew Miller ’13, who combined for 54 assists in 2009-’10.

“We want to set the tempo,” Little said. “Our brand of hockey is an exciting brand of hockey because it’s fast hockey.”

Kearney said the goal-scoring will be the team’s primary strength this year, but added that the Bulldogs cannot afford to neglect defense. The Bulldogs had trouble at times last year stopping the puck, notably giving up nine goals to Boston College in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals.

Allain never named a starting goalie last fall and awarded starts to his hottest hands. Nick Maricic ’13 and Jeff Malcolm ’13 led the team in minutes played in their first year on Yale’s squad. Allain is likely to keep the platoon strategy this year, Little said, with Ryan Rondeau ’11 also getting some ice time.

“We obviously need to focus on protecting our end of the rink first and then work out from there,” Kearney said.

Despite a roster filled with returning talent, the Bulldogs still lost key players to graduation. Standout right winger Sean Backman ’10, one of the most successful players the Yale program has seen, signed a one-year deal with the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars in late March. Backman ranks No. 4 on the school’s all-time list for career goals, with 77, and No. 7 in career points with 126.

Forward Mark Arcobello ’10 graduated alongside Backman, and the two combined for 235 points during their four-year careers at Yale. Former captain and defenseman Ryan Donald ’10 is now playing professionally in the ECHL. Second-team all-ECAC defenseman Tom Dignard ’10 also graduated.

This year’s freshman class of four forwards and a defenseman are looking to fill the gaps caused by graduation. The rookie crew includes three players selected in last year’s NHL entry draft.

“We’ve brought in some great talent — I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat at all this year,” O’Neill said. “All five freshmen are very good. They’re all going to come in and contribute right away.”

This weekend the Bulldogs will begin their quest to prove that the success of the past two years has not been a fluke. The Blue open their weekend with two games at Ingalls Rink in the annual Ivy Shootout. The contests between Yale, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth do not count toward the ECAC or Ivy League standings, but do impact overall team records and national rankings.

Yale faces off against Brown Friday night at 7 p.m. for the first time since the Bears eliminated Yale from the ECAC playoffs in mid-March. Brown, who finished second-to-last in the ECAC last season, returns its top two scorers and a goalie who started 32 of 37 games.

“This is a good chance to get rid of that memory against them and get another crack at them,” Little said. “They’re a good team.”

The winners and losers of Friday’s Yale-Brown and Princeton-Dartmouth matchups will play each other on Saturday, with the Elis set to compete at 7 p.m.