For the seniors on the men’s hockey team, ‘firsts’ are few and far between. The group has been to three NCAA tournaments, reached the national quarterfinals twice and won two ECAC titles.

But this weekend, the seniors will be facing a new challenge — for the first time in their careers, they will be playing in the first round of the ECAC tournament.

The Bulldogs (13–13–3, 10–10–2 ECAC) will host Princeton at Ingalls Rink this weekend for a three-game series in the first round of the ECAC tournament. In each of the last three ECAC tournaments — two of which they have won — the Bulldogs have been a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed and received a first-round bye. Captain and forward Brian O’Neill ’12 said those playoff trips have given the seniors the experience necessary to lead Yale on a deep playoff run this year.

“We’ve all been in the ECAC tournament and won a couple championships, so everyone knows what it takes, which is important,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think anything is too overwhelming for us right now, so I think that will definitely help us in the long run in the playoffs.”

This year’s squad heads into the tournament with only a No. 6 seed after falling to the middle of the ECAC pack this season. Despite the lower standing, the Elis begin the conference tournament with major momentum after finishing 3–0–1 over the last two weekends of the regular season. During that span, Yale has outscored its opponents 19–8. O’Neill said a new set of lines has re-energized the team’s offense over the past few weeks.

“I think we were getting a little bit stale with the lines,” O’Neill said. “To get some new life in the lines really gives everyone a little extra spark that you need in the second half of the season. I think that was a really good move by Coach, and we’re seeing the benefits of that.”

Princeton (8–14–7, 6–12–4) and Yale have faced off three times this season, with the first game back on Oct. 28. That game, part of the Ivy Shootout, was the first time either team had taken on an ECAC opponent this season, though it did not count toward conference standings.

The two sides were almost dead even in that contest, as they fought through 65 minutes of hockey to a 2–2 draw. Both teams scored two second-period goals and headed home with one point each.

But since then, Yale has clearly had the upper hand. The Elis first dominated Princeton on Jan. 7 when the Bulldogs hosted the Tigers at Ingalls Rink. Although the Elis fell behind by a goal early, they surged for four straight points and went on to a 6–2 win.

On both of those occasions, Jeff Malcolm ’13 was between the pipes for Yale. But Malcolm has been on the bench of late as head coach Keith Allain ’80 has opted for Nick Maricic ’13 in the team’s last four games. The two had rotated in net for about eight games until Malcolm was pulled after allowing three goals in 26 minutes to Cornell on Feb. 11. Since then, only Maricic has played in net, and it will almost surely be the California native in the crease tonight.

“[Maricic] was really good in our last game against Quinnipiac, which was awesome because it was a pressure-packed game,” O’Neill said. “For him to play like that, I think it should give him confidence going into the postseason. Nick has really stepped up for us going into the postseason, so he’s our guy.”

It was also Maricic in net for Yale’s most recent triumph over Princeton this past Friday, when the Elis trounced the Tigers 5–2 on the road.

O’Neill, who was recently named Ivy League Player of the Year and ECAC Player of the Month, had a hand in four of Yale’s five goals that game to lead the way. He has come up huge against Princeton all season with three goals and five assists overall, making him the player to watch this weekend. Although Allain acknowledged O’Neill’s strong performances in those games, he pointed out that he has been superb all season.

“I can’t think of a game where Brian didn’t play well,” Allain said. “He did get the four points up there against Princeton … but I never expect anything but Brian’s best effort.”

Princeton has struggled for most of the season and finished 11th in the 12-team ECAC. The Tigers have faced offensive woes and have scored just 75 goals, which puts them at 10th in the league. However, they have limited their vulnerability by recording the fewest penalty minutes in the conference (323), which allows them to play at full strength more than any other ECAC team. Still, Allain said that he expects Princeton to be a touch matchup.

“It’s going to be a heck of a battle every game this weekend,” Allain said. “They work really hard as a team, they have some team speed, their defense does a real good job of contributing to the offense and they get real good goaltending.”

Although Princeton does not appear to be a very significant threat, anything can happen in a three-game series. Just two years ago, the No. 11 seed, Brown, upset top-seeded Yale in a three-game quarterfinal at Ingalls Rink.

If the Elis hope to avoid such an upset this year, winning the opening game of the series is a good place to start. Going back to the 2008 ECAC tournament, the team that has won the opening game of a three-game series has gone on to win the set 72 percent of the time. However, Allain said he does not necessarily consider the first game to be the most important.

“You have to get two wins, it doesn’t really matter how you get them,” Allain said. “I don’t want to place too much importance on one game. The second win is the one you have to get.”

The series kicks off on tonight at 7 p.m. and will continue with Game 2 on Saturday night. If the teams split the first two games, Game 3 is scheduled for Sunday night at 7 p.m.