Brianna Loo

After a promising season that ended with close losses to Harvard in the ECAC Championship and to Boston University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Yale men’s hockey team enters the 2015–16 season with some of the highest expectations it has seen in recent history. Boasting a loaded veteran roster, the Bulldogs look to advance beyond the NCAA first round for the first time since their magical national title run in 2013.

Given last year’s success and the sheer volume of returning talent for the Elis — including one of the top goalkeepers in the nation and their top six scoring forwards from last year — it comes as no surprise that coaches and media alike foresee a promising campaign for Yale. The preseason media poll slotted Yale as the projected conference champion, while the coaches’ poll predicts the Elis to finish third, just behind Harvard and St. Lawrence.

In the latest USA Today national rankings, the Bulldogs rank No. 15, just under the No. 13 ranking that secured Yale an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament last March. For the team’s veterans, though, even another tournament appearance is not enough.

“I wouldn’t say [last year’s finish] was disappointing, but it’s definitely not where we want to be,” forward Chris Izmirlian ’17 said. “We want to win ECAC’s … and obviously we want to win the national title and the Ivy League again. We think we have the team to do it, and we’re really excited to get going.”

Offensively, the Bulldogs will see a whopping 86 percent of last year’s goal-scoring output return to the rink this season. In particular, Yale will be anchored by forwards Frankie DiChiara ’17, who led the team in points with 23 last season, and first-team All-Ivy honoree Mike Doherty ’17, who lit the lamp a team-high 12 times.

Beyond those returning stars, the Bulldogs expect an offensive boost from 2014–15 Ivy Rookie of the Year forward Ryan Hitchcock ’18, who will look to make a major step forward in his sophomore campaign after notching 15 points last season. In the faceoff circle, Yale will rely on Carson Cooper ’16, whose 60.4 faceoff win percentage ranked second in the nation last year.

“Having a lot of returners is pretty special,” forward John Hayden ’17, who had seven goals and 11 assists last year, said. “We’re really heavy offensively, and obviously we want to score more goals than we did last year. It starts with building chemistry early on this year.”

Defensively, the Elis will look to build off last year’s stellar performance, which saw them rank first in all of Division I with just 1.64 goals allowed per game. A significant part of that effort was superstar goalkeeper Alex Lyon ’17, who led the nation with both his 1.62 goals against average and his 0.939 save percentage.

Lyon, a starter since his freshman season, was named to the All-American First Team but missed out on the Mike Richter Award, given to the most outstanding goaltender in the NCAA. The netminder eschewed NHL interest for one more year to return for his junior season and should continue to tighten his rapport with the Elis’ returning defenders to form one of the nation’s most stalwart back lines.

“Having the best goalie in the country definitely helps your team morale,” Izmirlian said. “You know you can take a couple more chances here or there just because you know he’s back there to back you up.”

In front of Lyon, the Bulldogs will once again rely on defender Rob O’Gara ’16, who was rewarded for his 21-point season with a first-team All-American selection. O’Gara, a top prospect drafted by the Boston Bruins, will serve as a veteran role model alongside captain and defender Mitch Witek ’16 and blueliner Ryan Obuchowski ’16.

Beyond those three seniors, though, the Bulldogs return rising star Nate Repensky ’18 — who was Yale’s second-highest scoring defender behind O’Gara — as well as adding two freshmen on the blue line in Charlie Curti ’19 and Anthony Walsh ’19. For Curti and Walsh, this season provides a unique opportunity to learn and train from the defense’s experienced foundation before taking on a larger role in the team’s future.

“You watch the seniors, they set a good example,” Curti said. “They set a precedent through the preseason of how hard we have to work at this level. Obviously we’re going to fight for spots in the lineup every night and try to bring it on the ice.”

Those newcomers make up the last Eli class to skate alongside members of the 2013 Yale squad that won a national title.

This season also provides the team’s seniors a chance to end their careers the way they started and to cement their tenure as the greatest four-year stretch in program history.

For everyone else on the team, on the other hand, being led by a group of veterans who reached the sport’s pinnacle as freshmen provides inspiration as they begin the campaign in pursuit of the same goal.

“The stories and just what it takes to get to that level, you dream of stuff like that,” forward Andrew Gaus ’19 said. “Everyone in the locker room would be lying if they said they don’t wake up every morning hoping to put on a ring like the seniors do.”

With an explosive offense, strong veteran defense and budding star in net, the Bulldogs have a good shot at fulfilling those dreams.

Yale opens its season on Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Princeton before facing either Massachusetts or Maine on Saturday.