The second annual Rivalry on Ice may have seemed like a blowout thanks to its final score, but the men’s ice hockey team actually did not dominate the match from start to finish. The Bulldogs went down a man three times that night, twice in the second period and once in the third, giving the Crimson the chance to make a momentum-changing, powerplay goal.
Yet Harvard was unable to convert a single one of those opportunities, in large part due to the much improved Bulldog defense over last season.
“I think team defense has become a main focus for our team, from our forwards straight down to our goalies, and this has made us a tough team to play against defensively this year,” defenseman Rob O’Gara ’16 said. “We play an aggressive style and [take] pride in suffocating teams has allowed us to play with a lot of confidence against opposing offenses.”
This suffocating defense has allowed Yale to remain strong contenders in the ECAC, and it explains why the team is currently 3–0 against top-20 teams in the nation. The Bulldogs also maintain the conference’s second-best, and nation’s third-best, goals against average at 1.65 compared to last season’s fourth-place finish with 2.38.
Among the most obvious improvements to the team’s performance is a renewed focus on the penalty kill. As O’Gara noted, the team has worked this season to establish itself as an aggressive penalty-killing unit.
One of the most effective ways to prevent powerplay goals is to simply avoid shorthanded situations altogether. Yale currently stands as the least penalized team in Division I hockey, averaging just 6.27 penalty minutes per game. Blueliner Matt Killian ’15 noted that when the team does face power plays, head coach Keith Allain ’80 ensures that they are well prepared.
“I think we’ve done a good job, but there is always room for improvement,” Killian said. “We prepare for each team’s power play weekly and aim to take away their best option by aggressively eliminating time and space.”
This approach has limited opportunities not just on opposing teams’ power plays, but in general 5-on-5 play as well. That Yale has been out-shot by its opponents just three times so far this season is as much a testament to its smothering defensive play as it is to its offensive production.
Much of the credit for this success belongs to the Bulldogs’ last line of defense against opposing goal scorers. Alex Lyon ’17, who recorded his first shutout of the season and fourth of his career against Holy Cross on Dec. 30, is No. 6 among goaltenders in Division I with 329 saves on the season for a save percentage of 0.932 and a goals against average of 1.79. These numbers represent a significant improvement for Lyon over last season, as his goals against average has dropped by more than 0.6 since his freshman year.
Lyon has also received numerous awards this season for his puck-stopping abilities in net. The Bulldog netminder was awarded the Tim Taylor Cup as the MVP of the first matchup against Harvard and was named ECAC Goalie of the Week after stopping 26 shots against Dartmouth earlier that weekend. Patrick Spano ’17 has also been reliable in net for the Bulldogs with a career record of 4–0 and shutout against RIT on Nov. 29.
Defenseman Ryan Obuchowski ’16 said having a goalie as solid as Lyon greatly improves the team’s defensive confidence. Obuchowski also noted that the defense as a whole has benefited from the experience gained last year and the hard work the skaters put in over the offseason to prepare.
“The improvement of our D corps is a testament to the hard work our returning players put forth in the summer months both on and off the ice,” Obuchowski said.
While the Bulldogs may currently sit at seventh in the ECAC standings, Yale still has almost half its season left to play and the Bulldogs have played fewer conference games than the rest of the league. Whether or not Yale will rise in the standings depends on the performance of the defense and if its offense can improve in a similar manner.
Yale faces off against Brown this Friday in Providence at 7:30 p.m.