Inch by inch, the men’s hockey team has pulled itself up the national rankings this year.

The Bulldogs (8–1–0, 4–0–0 ECAC) started the season ranked fifth in the country, but as teams ahead of them faltered, the Elis have not. Aside from a third-period collapse to Air Force Academy at high altitude and thousands of miles from home, they have done nothing but win and enter this weekend ranked No. 2 in both national hockey polls.

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But their toughest test yet awaits this weekend. The Elis will face nationally ranked teams on Friday and Sunday for the first time this season with No. 15/16 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (7–3–3, 2–2–0) — Yale’s toughest ECAC opponent last year — and No. 13 Union coming to Ingalls Rink.

“Everyone knows that it’s going to be a tough weekend for us,” left winger Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “We pretty much know what we’re going to get after playing them last year.”

The RPI Engineers beat the Blue twice last season, recording a 5–2 decision on the road in early November before shutting the Elis out 4–0 on their home ice in late January. The Elis tied No. 13 Union (7–2–3, 2–1–1) in their first game last season, before eking out a 4–3 win in their second meeting.

The weekend’s matchups are not just contests between bitter conference rivals. The games will pit the top offense in the nation against the fifth- and top-ranked scoring defenses.

“It’s our strength going up against their strength,” O’Neill said. “The way both those teams play, they rely on defense a lot so they’re going to hope to slow the pace down. We’re going to try to push the tempo.”

Yale’s high-flying attack has been lighting the lamp at the frantic pace of 5.22 goals per game, more than a full goal more than the next best team. Union, meanwhile, is allowing a mere 1.92 goals each game, while RPI gives up 2.08.

The question of both games, then, will be whether the Engineers or the Dutchmen can hold fast in the face of Yale’s attack. Doing so will mean shutting down two of the nation’s top scorers. Yale linemates Broc Little ’11 is tied for first in the nation in points per game, while Denny Kearney ’11 is tied for third in the same category.

“It will be a thing where we get into the game and obviously our forwards are very talented and they’ll challenge the other team’s ‘D’ and the other team’s ‘D’ will challenge our forwards,” captain Jimmy Martin ’11 said.

With such tough opponents lined up, Martin also said it is imperative that the Bulldogs string together a complete 60 minutes of play. The Blue have seen shaky first periods in several games this season before picking up the pace in the second and third frames. Against RPI and Union, the Bulldogs said they don’t have room for error.

“There’s no leeway,” Martin said.

The Elis’ depth lines demonstrated their own ability to score last weekend, and Yale will not have to rely entirely on its top scoring threats. But any goal that the Elis score this weekend will have to beat one of the nation’s top goaltenders.

RPI netminder Allen York has a 1.80 goals against average to show for his 735-plus minutes in goal, putting him seventh in Division I hockey. York’s .930 save percentage is 11th nationally. The junior netminder most recently tallied 24 saves when the Engineers notched a 3–2 win against Bowling Green State 20 seconds into overtime in the Annual Rensselaer Invitational on Saturday.

Union goalie Keith Kinkaid ranks a formidable fourth in the nation with a 1.59 goals against average and also fourth with a .936 save percentage. Kinkaid has won seven of his 11 games between the pipes.

The Engineers are riding a three-game win streak, but every victory has come by a one-goal margin. RPI split a pair of games against Union three weekends ago. The Dutchmen have not competed since falling to RPI 4–3 in overtime during the second of those games, but will face Brown Friday night before heading to New Haven.

The puck is slated to drop against RPI at 7 p.m. tonight at Ingalls Rink. Yale will host Union at 3 p.m. on Sunday.