The stakes are higher and the altitude is lower. It’s payback time.

A week after it clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament with its ECAC championship-winning performance in Atlantic City, the men’s hockey team (27–6–1, 17–4–1 ECAC) will kick off its hunt for the national championship in Bridgeport this weekend. Yale will open the tournament with a chance to avenge an early-season loss against No. 16 Air Force Academy (20–11–6). A victory would pit the Elis against the winner of a game between No. 8 Union and No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth the next night.

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The NCAA tournament is single elimination, so a loss Friday would end Yale’s season and, with it, the collegiate careers of the team’s nine senior skaters, who constitute the most successful class in school history. If the Elis win Friday, they move one step closer to a national title and face another do-or-die situation the next night in the same location. If they make it out of the weekend alive, they will advance to their first Frozen Four since 1952.

Unlike last season’s team, which beat the odds to win the first NCAA tournament game in school history, this year’s Elis are favorites and, as the tournament’s top seed, are predicted to reach the national semifinals in Minnesota.

Despite Yale’s No. 1 seed and the expectations that accompany it, neither a school-record 23 regular-season victories nor a dominant effort in the ECAC championship is any guarantee of success on a weekend when one lucky bounce can decide everything.

Yale has seized the tournament’s upset potential before. Last year, the Bulldogs played as heavy underdogs against a vaunted North Dakota team with seven national championships to its name. The Elis took an early lead and hung on for a 3–2 victory.

Air Force has proven capable of its own surprises on the big stage. Two years ago, the Falcons took down No. 1 seed Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Four months ago, they dealt Yale its first loss of the season.

“We’re taking [Yale] seriously as the No. 1 seed in the country, but we ain’t sneaking up on them either,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said in a press conference on Monday. “We handed them a pretty humbling loss [in Colorado] on that Sunday and I’ll guarantee you they haven’t forgotten that.”

That humbling loss for the Elis came on Air Force turf, more than 6,000 feet above sea level in Colorado. Yale led 3–0 after two periods, but the Falcons exploded with four late goals to come from behind and topple the visitors. Yale has not squandered such a large lead since.

“We definitely remember what happened back in November,” said center Andrew Miller ’13, who leads Yale in scoring. “But as of now we are both different teams.”

Indeed, Yale has made one major personnel change since its loss to the Falcons. Goaltender Jeff Malcolm ’13 — who allowed all four goals — has not returned to the ice. Instead Ryan Rondeau ’11 has become the Elis’ full-time starting goalie, and started all 28 games in the rest of Yale’s season.

Although the senior started the first game of his freshman season, he had seen limited action before this season. But Rondeau has emerged as one of the nation’s top goaltenders this year. His 1.83 goals against average is the best in the country, and he has not allowed a goal in more than three games.

Rondeau also started both of Yale’s NCAA tournament games in 2010, and he is not the only Eli with experience on the national stage. Fifteen of Yale’s 18 projected skaters for Friday’s game have played at least once in NCAA contests.

That playoff experience showed when Yale bulldozed its way through the ECAC tournament with some of the best hockey it has played all season. The team has won its past three games by a combined 14–0.

But Air Force is on a hot streak of its own. The Falcons needed to win the Atlantic Hockey postseason championship to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament, and did so in a clean sweep. They entered the postseason on a four-game winning streak, before sinking Holy Cross in the semifinals and the Rochester Institute of Technology — which reached the national semifinals last season — in the finals.

“If you’re going to be a champion, you need the ability to come from behind, and you need the ability to play on the road,” Serratore said of his team, which did both in the conference playoffs.

Yale has struggled on the road this season, and suffered all five of its regular season losses outside the friendly confines of Ingalls Rink. But the crowd at this weekend’s games in Bridgeport, a 20-minute drive from campus, is expected to favor the Elis.

The Athletics Department had sold over 400 subsidized tickets to students as of Thursday morning, and Director of Athletics Ticket Operations Jeremy Makins said he expects the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard to nearly fill its 10,000-person capacity. Makins said the event sold out when Yale hosted the tournament in Bridgeport two years ago.

“I wouldn’t miss it — I’ll be there,” University President Richard Levin said. “Unfortunately I was away when they won the ECAC, but I’ve seen many of their games this year and it’s a fabulous team and they’ve been extraordinarily well coached. I’m very excited.”

After Union and Minnesota-Duluth face off at 3:00 p.m., Yale will take on Air Force at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. If the Elis win, they will play on the same ice at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Drew Henderson contributed reporting.