By the time most of Yale returns from break, the men’s hockey team could own a conference championship.

After finishing its regular season in second place, Yale has earned a bye through the first weekend of the ECAC tournament. As lower-ranked teams square off this weekend, Yale will have an extra week of rest and practice before it skates into its quarterfinal series on March 11 against a yet-to-be determined opponent.

“It’s nice to get a little rest,” said Andrew Miller ’13, the team’s leading scorer. “But since we have this week off, we won’t be in as good game shape as the team we play. We have to work hard this week and get a good sweat going every day.”

All 12 teams in the ECAC qualify for the conference playoffs, but the top four seeds receive byes directly to the quarterfinals. The bottom eight squads pair off, and play each other in best-of-three series. The winners of those initial series will have the chance to upset one of those four top teams in the quarterfinals.

Last year, Yale suffered one of those upsets. The Elis had won the ECAC regular season title, and faced off in the quarterfinals against a mediocre Brown team, which had finished second-to-last during the regular season. But Yale skated sluggishly after the week off, while the Bears rode the momentum of an upset win over RPI the weekend before and eliminated Yale in three games.

Elimination from the conference tournament did not end the Bulldogs’ quest for the national championship last year, and would not end it this year either. The computer that seeds the NCAA tournament currently ranks the Bulldogs first in the nation, and even an early exit from the ECAC playoffs would not drop them far from the top.

Last year, despite its loss to Brown, Yale stunned a vaunted and higher-ranked North Dakota program in the NCAA tournament with a 3–2 upset.

The Elis were heavy underdogs in that contest. The Fighting Sioux were playing in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth consecutive year; the Elis were making their fourth appearance in program history and had never won a game in the national tournament.

This year, however, Yale has grown from David to Goliath.

The team held the No. 1 ranking in the national polls for over two months, ending only in late January. It boasts the nation’s best scoring offense and second-best scoring defense. It is not shy about stating its aspirations — to go further than one win into the national tournament.

“We hope we have eight games left,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said following the team’s last game of the regular season, a win over Cornell.

Eight games — eight wins — are the number necessary to win both the ECAC and NCAA titles. The first two of those wins will have to come on the weekend of March 11 at Ingalls Rink. If the Bulldogs advance past the quarterfinals, they will have no margin for error in the single-game elimination semifinals and finals. It’s go forward, or go home.

Last year, Yale’s ECAC tournament run ended far sooner than fans anticipated. The Bulldogs had won seven of their past eight games. They were facing off against a Brown team they had defeated twice in the regular season. But after two weeks off, Yale could not muster same the energy that had carried it through the end of the season.

The Elis have encountered similar difficulties regaining momentum after time off this year. Three of the Bulldogs’ five season losses came in the month following the winter break.

Heading into this year’s ECAC tournament, the Yale squad faces a situation much like last year’s: two weeks off before opening postseason play at home, and just one loss in its past six games. But this year, the Elis have two fewer obstacles to overcome.

Yale’s first game against Brown also marked its first without star forward Sean Backman ’10, who had broken his ankle the night of the team’s last regular season game. After Allain declared Backman “out indefinitely,” the Bulldogs had to adjust without the dangerous right winger.

Beyond the offensive setback, there was last year’s constant question of goaltending. Allain spent the 2009–’10 season cycling through netminders — never electing a chief starter. But this year’s Eli squad has climbed to unprecedented heights in the national rankings largely thanks to the steady performance of goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11. The goalie, who played a mere six games last season, has emerged not only as a starter, but as a star.

Rondeau’s success is evident in statistical categories: he ranks third in the nation in both save percentage and goals against average. It is evident in individual games: he has shut out three teams this year, whereas last year’s carousel of goalies did not manage a single shutout. And it is evident in the words of his teammates.

“When we make mistakes, we know [Rondeau] has our back,” said Jimmy Martin ’11.

For most of the season, Yale has not needed that stellar goaltending — its top-ranked offense has scored at a clip quick enough to blow most opponents out of the water early on. The attack faltered in late January and early February, but finished with four goals or more in four of its last five regular season games.

“We just have to get out there and push the tempo,” said Miller. “We just have to play to our ability.”

Yale’s quarterfinal series will be held at Ingalls Rink on March 11, March 12 and, if necessary, March 13. All games will begin at 7 p.m. and be broadcast on WYBC. Free student tickets will be available at the rink before the game.

If Yale wins its quarterfinal series, it will play in the semifinals on March 18 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The finals will be held the next day. The tournament games will also be broadcast on WYBC.