A month ago, the Yale men’s hockey team entered its 2015–16 season with some of the highest expectations in recent program history. After a season in which the Bulldogs boasted the highest-performing defense in the nation and kept up with then-No. 3 Boston University through overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it seemed possible, though not certain, that another stellar defensive season could combine with an improved offense to elevate the team from last year’s No. 13 pairwise ranking.
And after nine games, it could be argued that the Elis’ work thus far has matched those expectations exactly.
Currently sitting at No. 11 in the computer-calculated pairwise rankings but No. 10 in the two most prominent national polls, Yale (5–2–2, 3–1–2 ECAC Hockey) has taken care of business against inferior opponents and battled highly ranked foes down to the wire. With 2.78 goals scored and 1.67 allowed per game, the Bulldogs are 25th and fifth, respectively, while only a season removed from placing 38th and first in those categories in 2014–15.
“I think our offense is doing its job,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “I think they’re chipping in, helping us have the limited success we’ve had so far as a team. We scored three goals on Saturday night against a team [Providence] that gives up 1.8 a game, so, yeah, I’m pleased with our offense, but like other parts of our game, I want it to get better.”
Despite just two losses in the Bulldogs’ campaign thus far, Allain expressed frustration at the team’s 4–3 loss to No. 1 Providence, which he said was a missed opportunity against a top team.
The Elis scored three unanswered goals to take a 3–2 lead over the defending national champions entering the third period, but they surrendered two goals early in the third and were unable to hold on for a marquee victory.
“We know we can be better [than we were against Providence],” forward Ryan Hitchcock ’18 said. “It’s a little disappointing because we had such a good opportunity to beat one of the best teams in the country and the national champion. We didn’t play our best game.”
Yale’s only other loss, to Rensselaer two weeks earlier, was another contest in which the Bulldogs struggled to close out a road game. Yale overcame 1–0 and 2–1 deficits to close out the third period tied at 2-all. In the overtime period, however, Yale gave up a game-winning score and, despite outshooting the Engineers 43–19, was unable to secure any points in the conference race.
While the Bulldogs expressed frustration with these close losses, Yale’s extensive early-season experience with one-goal games should benefit the team in more intense postseason situations, forward Carson Cooper ’16 said.
“Coming down to playoffs, it’s unlikely you’re going to blow a team out,” Cooper said. “Being able to learn how to manage these games now early on in the season is going to translate to success later on in the season.”
On Friday, Yale may continue its recent trend of playing tight games when undefeated No. 3/2 Quinnipiac, an ECAC Hockey rival, pays a visit to Ingalls Rink. Both of last year’s matchups between these two teams ended in 2–2 ties.
Allain noted that looking forward, the remainder of the ECAC Hockey season will not get any easier for the Bulldogs due to increased competitiveness in the conference.
“[The conference] is better this year than it’s ever been,” Allain said. “This is my 10th year [as head coach], and the ECAC is remarkably different … than it was when I walked in the door. Every year, the level gets a little bit tougher.”
The rankings align with Allain’s observation. In last season’s year-end national polls, not a single ECAC Hockey team finished in the top 10. This year, however, Quinnipiac, Harvard and Yale all own top-10 rankings, and St. Lawrence and Cornell are just behind with No. 13 and No. 15 rankings, respectively.
The puck will drop for Yale’s game against Quinnipiac at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. The Bulldogs will then play Princeton on Saturday at 7 p.m.