The No. 11 Yale men’s hockey team has just four weekends and eight games remaining in regular-season play. With the postseason quickly approaching, every opportunity the Bulldogs have to hit the ice becomes a bit more important — and come Friday and Saturday, they will square off against a pair of ranked teams in contests that carry major implications for conference playoff and NCAA Tournament positioning.
The Bulldogs (12–5–4, 7–4–3 ECAC Hockey) welcome a pair of Ivy League foes to Ingalls Rink in the final weekend of a brief four-game home stand. No. 20 Dartmouth (11–9–1, 8–6–0) visits New Haven on Friday night for a battle with the Bulldogs before making room for a Saturday showdown between Yale and No. 7 Harvard (12–5–3, 8–3–3), the 252nd meeting between the two programs.
“[Yale-Harvard is] really a storied rivalry,” defender Ryan Obuchowski ’16 said. “You come in as a freshman and you know about it but you don’t understand it, and then you become able to appreciate it more through the years.”
First up on the Elis’ weekend slate is the Big Green, whose 8–2–0 mark in the 2016 calendar year has propelled the program into the national polls and NCAA Tournament picture. Dramatic improvements on both ends of the ice have spurred that turnaround.
Before the new year, Dartmouth’s scoring offense (2.00 goals per game) and scoring defense (4.09 goals against per game) each ranked dead last in ECAC Hockey — numbers that proved true when the Bulldogs defeated the Big Green 4–2 in November.
But both sides of Dartmouth’s game have come alive in recent weeks. Since Jan. 1, Dartmouth’s attack has been averaging a full goal and a half better than its 2015 clip, while its defense, backed by a 0.943 January save percentage from goaltender Charles Grant, has sliced its goal allowance by nearly 60 percent to 1.70, second among ECAC teams in 2016 only to Yale’s mark of 1.33.
That upswing has led to success in recent weeks, even against challenging opponents. The Big Green’s 2016 results include a 4–2 win against then-No. 18 St. Lawrence, a 3–0 victory at then-No. 10 Cornell and a five-score outburst — and, at one point, a three-goal lead — versus No. 1 Quinnipiac in what ended up being a 7–5 defeat.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re very dangerous in transition and their goaltending has been, [over] the last five or six weeks, at the top of the league,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “So they’ll be a formidable opponent.”
The next night will see the Crimson clash with the Bulldogs for the eighth time in the past two seasons, and for the second time since Harvard knocked Yale out of the 2015 ECAC Tournament in a double-overtime thriller. In their one meeting during the 2015–16 campaign thus far, the Elis tied the hosting Crimson 2–2 in November courtesy of a dramatic, last-minute one-timer by forward Joe Snively ’19.
Harvard is heading into the weekend coming off a 3–2 loss to No. 4 Boston College in the Beanpot tournament. Nevertheless, the Cantabs are sporting a modest three-game conference winning streak, highlighted by a 6–2 drubbing of Cornell on Jan. 23.
Saturday’s contest, at least on paper, figures to be a classic offense-versus-defense affair, with Harvard’s scoring offense and Yale’s scoring defense each ranking in the top seven nationwide. Senior forwards Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo, whose 0.80 and 0.75 goals-per-game averages sit first and second in the ECAC, spearhead the Crimson attack.
Vesey in particular acts as Harvard’s primary offensive force, ranking second in the nation with 1.60 points per game, though the Elis did manage to hold the North Reading, Massachusetts native to just three shots and no points in the teams’ first matchup.
“You just try and play the same thing regardless of who it is on the ice,” Obuchowski said. “[But] as everyone knows in the country, [Vesey’s] a good player and he’s earned that attention and I’m sure he’s going to get that attention from us.”
And for Vesey — the ECAC January Player of the Month — to get on the scoresheet this time, he must find a way to put the puck past the ECAC’s Goaltender of the Month, Yale netminder Alex Lyon ’17.
In fact, all three conference monthly award winners will be featured Saturday night, as Snively took home Rookie of the Month honors for his six-point January. And on display as well, of course, will be classic school pride — and perhaps a bit of extra edge, both on the Whale ice as well as in the arena’s bleachers.
“Anybody that would tell you that there’s not a little something extra special that they all feel for those [Yale-Harvard] games would not be being totally honest,” Harvard head coach Ted Donato said.
Puck drop for each contest is scheduled for 7 p.m.