It’s crunch time.
The men’s hockey team closes its regular season at Ingalls Rink this weekend with two games that have three different kinds of championship implications. The Elis take on Colgate (7–23–2, 4–14–2 ECAC) Friday night and Cornell (13–11–3, 11–7–2) Saturday night.
Yale competes for four titles each year: the Ivy League, the ECAC regular season, the ECAC playoffs and the NCAA. It clinched the Ivy League title last weekend with its win over Princeton. This weekend’s games most directly affect Yale’s hunt to raise the Cleary Cup — the trophy awarded to the ECAC regular-season champion — for the third consecutive year.
The Elis currently sit in second place in the conference, a single point behind Union (24–7–3, 16–3–1). They are not content to finish in that spot.
“You want to win every title you can,” said captain Jimmy Martin ’11. “We’re not going to be happy with a second-place finish.”
But Yale cannot take over first place solely on its own merits. Union can clinch the title outright by winning both its games this weekend. For Yale to capture the cup, the Elis need to win both their games and watch Union tie or lose at least one of its own.
But, according to head coach Keith Allain ’80, the Elis will not be worrying excessively about the Dutchmen’s performance.
“We have bigger goals,” Allain said.
The biggest of those goals is the national championship.
The upperclassmen on Yale’s team have already captured both the regular- and postseason ECAC titles but the biggest prize has eluded them.
Their play this season has already all but guaranteed them one of the 16 places in the national tournament. Now, they are fighting for a No. 1 seed, which would allow them to play comparatively weaker teams in the early rounds.
That top seed is well within the Elis’ grasp. Though the team relinquished its hold on the No. 1 spot in the national polls weeks ago, it retains the top spot in a more important ranking: the PairWise computer poll.
PairWise is a computer system the NCAA uses to allocate slots in the national tournament, and grades teams based on criteria including record against common opponents and a complicated statistic called Ratings Percentage Index, which assigns varying impact to games based on the winning percentages of the teams involved.
Yale maintains a comfortable lead in the PairWise rankings, and it would have to lose both its games this weekend to lose that lead.
The Elis are favored to win both games, but will face two teams eager to avenge early-season losses.
Colgate has struggled to a dismal record this season, and sits in last place in the conference. But it lost by just two goals to Yale in November, and will take the ice at Ingalls Rink with the knowledge that an upset victory could infuse some pride into what is now a lost season.
Cornell, on the other hand, will be energized by the effect Saturday’s game will have on its postseason chances. The Big Red limped to a 6–8–1 record out of the gate, but have since lost only three of 14 games and risen to a tie for third in the ECAC standings. But the team’s hold on that important spot — only the best four teams in the ECAC receive byes through the first round of the playoffs — is tenuous, and it will need to win both of its weekend games to hold onto it.
If either team is to beat the Elis, it will have to shut down a team that insists it is focused on the present games as well as preparation for the national tournament.
“We focus on what we need to do, and that’s getting ready for Friday night against Colgate,” Martin said.
Yale will be led by an offense that has recently rediscovered its scoring touch. After slumping through much of January, the Elis have come alive in their recent three-game winning streak and averaged a frantic 5.67 goals per game.
That offensive charge has been led by the line of Brian O’Neill ’12. His 11 points in the team’s past 12 games have vaulted him to the team lead in points. He has benefitted from the expert passing of linemate Andrew Miller ’13, who has been especially good lately, according to Allain.
“He’s such a smart player,” the coach said. “He’s able to anticipate the play, and as a result he’s very dangerous offensively.”
Chris Cahill ’11 joins the pair on that top scoring line, which has increased its pace as Broc Little ’11 and Denny Kearney ’11, the team’s two Hobey Baker Award nominees, have slowed down in recent weeks.
Though Little and Kearney are not scoring at their early-season pace, Allain remains unworried.
“Not every line is going to be scoring every night,” he said.
Yale’s improved offense has come on the road, where the Elis were a mere 5–5 before the recent winning streak began. This weekend, they return home, where they have been unbeatable.
“Playing at home gives you some energy,” said defenseman Mike Matczak ’11. “And we’re an energy team.”
Yale returns this weekend to a rink on which it has not lost in 14 games this season. Two wins this weekend would complete the team’s first perfect season at home in over 80 years, and first ever at Ingalls Rink. The Elis will attempt to set a new mark for excellence at home in front of two packed houses: Saturday night’s Cornell game is sold out, and only standing room tickets remain for Friday’s tilt with Colgate.