Last season, the men’s hockey team’s trip to Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute resulted in back-to-back losses that dethroned the Bulldogs as the No. 1 team in the country.
But the Elis’ contests against these two ECAC foes this weekend may carry even higher stakes.
A shaky home opening, including a 6–2 thrashing by Cornell, dropped the Bulldogs (2–1–1, 1–1–0 ECAC) from No. 9 to No. 10 and 13 in the USA Today and USCHO polls, respectively. A pair of victories this weekend could reestablish the Blue and White as a legitimate contender for the national championship. Defeat, on the other hand, might spell disaster for the Bulldogs.
Winning on the road against Union (5–1–3, 2–0) and RPI (1–8, 0–2) is no easy task. The Elis’ last away victories against the two schools came in February 2009.
“It’s always one of the toughest [trips of the season],” captain and forward Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “These teams are always good at home and will be a challenge to us.”
The Bulldogs have struggled to replicate last season’s high-octane offense, which averaged a nation-best 4.19 goals per game. They have scored just two goals in each of their contests this season. The Elis retained their top two scorers, O’Neill and Andrew Miller ’13, but lost a talented core of seniors, which included five of their top scoring threats.
RPI has faced challenges similar to the Bulldogs’. The Engineers saw the departure of eight seniors, including wingers Chase Polacek and Tyler Helfrich, who combined for 35 goals and 86 points last season. Junior goaltender Allen York, who ranked ninth in country in goals against average (2.17) and tenth in save percentage (.924), left school early to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League.
The personnel loss has hurt the Engineers, who have dropped seven consecutive contests — including five to three nationally-ranked opponents — and have struggled on both sides of the rink. So far this season, opponents have outscored RPI by a staggering margin of 27–9.
Freshman goalkeeper Bryce Merriam has seen the majority of the action in front of the net, surrendering an average of 2.56 goals a game. This number is inflated, however, by the seven empty-net goals that RPI has allowed.
Despite RPI’s early season struggles, the Bulldogs cannot afford to let their guard down Friday night at the Houston Field House, one of the most hostile arenas in the ECAC.
“RPI is a very aggressive hockey team,” defenseman Kevin Peel ’12 said. “They love to hit, and they play a high tempo game. It will be important for us to prove that we are the faster and smarter team.”
The Bulldogs are also known for their high-tempo gameplay, something that head coach Keith Allain ‘80 said will make for a good matchup.
“I think it will be an exciting hockey game,” Allain said. “When you force the tempo, and both teams do, you’re gonna see some mistakes made, and that sometimes makes for entertaining hockey.”
But the Bulldogs’ bigger test of the weekend should come on Saturday against No. 9 Union. The Dutchmen are averaging 3.56 goals per game and are ranked eleventh in the country this year despite losing five senior forwards and their head coach, Nate Leaman, in the spring.
Union’s offense presents a stiff challenge for the Blue and White defense, which played two freshmen last week and is still trying to find its chemistry. Yale’s blueliners struggled to keep Cornell away from the net, giving the Big Red too many scoring opportunities at close range. But the Bulldogs responded the next game, forcing Colgate to settle mostly for shots from the perimeter and shutting out the Raiders 2–0.
“Our defensive partners are still getting used to playing with each other,” Peel said. “We had better communication and a better feeling where the other guy was going to be [against Colgate]. As we keep going, we are just going to learn to trust each other.”
After posting 39 saves and his first career shutout against Colgate, Jeff Malcolm ’13 will likely be the Bulldogs’ starting goalie again this week. Through the first four games of the season, the junior has given up an average of just 1.98 goals and ranks sixth in the nation with a .938 save percentage.
While their recent offensive outburst has dazzled spectators, the Dutchmen have always been known for their defensive and special teams play. This season is no exception.
The Dutchmen boast the second toughest scoring defense among Division I schools, giving up just 1.56 goals per game through nine contests. Sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick leads all collegiate netminders in both goals allowed (1.24) and save percentage (.949) and has minimized the departure of sophomore goalie Keith Kinkaid, who decided to sign with the New Jersey Devils in April.
“Just not making the extra pass, getting the puck on net, and being gritty around the net are important [against Union],” O’Neill said. “If we do those three things, we should be able to get a few opportunities.”
Union has also converted 31.1 percent of its power play opportunities, trailing behind only Holy Cross.
But the Dutchmen’s power play unit will have to face off against a Yale team that has excelled at killing penalties this season. The Bulldogs have allowed just one power play goal on 14 attempts.
“[To prevent Union power plays], we need to not take penalties,” blueliner Gus Young ’14 said. “Our penalty killing has been pretty good this year, so just have to do what we have been doing and turn them away if they get the chances.”
The Dutchmen’s victory at home combined with Yale’s loss to RPI on the same road trip last season gave Union the edge it needed to win the ECAC regular season title. While their season has just started, the Elis feel the pressure to prove that they are the top dog in their conference.
“This is going to be a tough road trip,” O’Neill said. “And we will really find where we stand among the teams in the ECAC.”
The puck drops at 7 p.m. on Friday at RPI. The Bulldogs will faceoff against Union Saturday at 7:30 p.m.