At the same time the puck dropped on the Yale men’s hockey game against St. Lawrence on Jan. 23, an inauspicious streak belonging to defenseman Dan O’Keefe ’17 rose to 27 — 27 games since O’Keefe had last laced up his skates for the No. 10 Bulldogs and 27 games since the junior blueliner had last played meaningful collegiate minutes.
However, head coach Keith Allain ’80 said O’Keefe’s efforts in practice had recently “changed for the better” as the junior looked for an opportunity to crack the lineup. And that opportunity came when defenseman Nate Repensky ’18 was injured at SLU, opening a spot for O’Keefe.
Two weekends and four games later, O’Keefe notched his first point of the season, which hardly could have come at a better time for his team: a primary assist on the game-winning goal of forward Cody Learned ’16, at a sold-out Ingalls Rink, to ultimately defeat No. 9 Harvard.
“[O’Keefe] was working himself into a position where he was going to get into the lineup either way, and then circumstances occurred,” Allain said. “And he’s played very well for us.”
O’Keefe’s storyline is particularly notable because of his prolonged absence from Yale’s lineup, but this theme of the team finding success from unexpected sources may at least partially explain why the Elis hold top-10 PairWise and poll ranking positions, even though the Bulldogs cannot seem to rid themselves of the injury bug.
Yale has five skaters who missed last weekend’s sweep of ranked Ivy foes Dartmouth and Harvard, and who, according to Allain, are expected to miss this weekend’s games as well. When they have been able to hit the ice, those five have totaled 30 points in a combined 78 games, and if that 0.385 point-per-game average were for a single player, it would rank fifth among Bulldogs who have played in at least 75 percent of Yale’s games.
Over the course of the year, the two teams equal to or above the Elis in the ECAC Hockey standings — No. 1 Quinnipiac and the Crimson — have had 12 and eight players, respectively, play in every contest. Yale has had just six.
“[We’re on] a pretty good roll. [But] everybody kind of knows the situation we’re in, [and] where we’re at,” said forward Mike Doherty ’17, who has missed 10 games this season. “We’ve got a lot of guys out.”
Notably absent throughout the season among that pentad of pained Bulldogs is Repensky, who is once again sidelined after missing the first 11 games of the year. The Minnesota native recorded 14 points his freshman year — the second highest total of any newcomer — and played in 28 games, including all four postseason contests, but has missed 15 of the Bulldogs’ 23 matchups in 2015–16.
The remaining four are all forwards and, combined, have lit the lamp on a significant 23.7 percent of the Elis’ goals this year. Ryan Hitchcock ’18, who last played on Jan. 22, is perhaps the most major offensive loss for Yale. The sophomore missed three additional games in December and January to play for the U.S. National Juniors Team, yet still sits at fourth in total points for the Bulldogs. His six goals this season are surpassed only by forwards John Hayden ’17 and Joe Snively ’19, both of whom have played in every game on the schedule.
Forward Chris Izmirlian ’17 has missed the last three Yale victories after playing in the Bulldogs’ loss to Union on Jan. 29. Though he recorded two goals and four assists over his first 13 games, he has seen a drought in points since facing Arizona State on Jan. 8, against which he earned a season-high of two in the first game of the Desert Hockey Classic.
A pair of freshman forwards — Andrew Gaus ’19 and Ted Hart ’19 — have also been absent from the lineup. Gaus last appeared in the Classic championship game against No. 14 Michigan Tech on Jan. 10, the last Eli game before the team transitioned to the ECAC-exclusive stretch of its season. Hart, on the other hand, played in 18 consecutive games before sitting out due to injury this past weekend. Each newcomer has racked up three goals to date, highlighted by an overtime game-winner from Hart against Brown.
“You definitely feel [the extra time due to their absences],” Doherty said. “At the same time, you don’t really notice it during the game. It’s tough to play three lines, but you get in a good rhythm.”
And with so many underclassmen sidelined for some of the most crucial games of the regular season, other Yale players have had the opportunity to find that rhythm. Several Bulldog veterans have elevated their games to unanticipated heights, lifting the Elis to their loftiest ranking of 2016. In addition to O’Keefe’s play, standout performances from senior forwards Learned and Stu Wilson ’16 against the Big Green and Crimson last weekend helped bolster Yale with big wins against the two conference opponents.
Although Learned tied for second among Elis with nine goals last season, he racked up just two assists and one score in his first 18 games of the current campaign. But over the team’s last four contests, Learned has more than doubled that point total and has also scored in each of the Yale’s last three games, including his go-ahead tally against Harvard.
“It’s like [Learned’s] taken his game to a new level the last three or four games, and it’s right at a time when we absolutely needed it,” Allain said after Saturday’s game. “So it’s good to see a senior stepping up like that and making a major contribution.”
Wilson exploded in his own right this past weekend with two goals and four total points, including three against then-No. 20 Dartmouth — the first time he recorded more than two points in a single weekend this season. A year after averaging less than a third of a point per game, the senior now leads the team with a 0.91 mark.
Such contributions have come from all classes, with the freshman Snively turning in a three-point weekend of his own against the Crimson and Big Green. Forward JM Piotrowski ’19 also “thrived,” according to Allain, in an expanded role over the past pair of games during which the Illinois native displayed noticeable hustle and grit.
“Obviously having guys injured is never ideal,” Piotrowski said. “For my situation it’s kind of worked in my favor … I’m not afraid to try new things because I’m getting so many opportunities. It’s [allowed] me to relax a little bit.”
Yet even though the Bulldogs have filled in the gaps admirably in recent contests, they struggled to adjust to the November loss of Doherty, their 2014–15 leading goal scorer. In the 10-game stretch from Nov. 14 to Jan. 10 during which the junior was sidelined, Yale scored just 2.10 goals per contest and registered a 0.600 win percentage, as opposed to the 2.92 and 0.769 marks the team has recorded with its stalwart forward in the lineup.
And though Doherty has stayed on the ice over the past month, the Bulldogs will be down perhaps an even more valuable skater when they play at Colgate on Friday and at No. 15 Cornell on Saturday. Defenseman and 2014–15 first-team All-American Rob O’Gara ’16 will be forced to sit out, not because of an injury of his own, but because of one he inflicted on Harvard forward Sean Malone last Saturday.
In the third period of last Saturday’s game, O’Gara took a hard shot from Malone that prompted no whistle from the officials. The Hobey Baker Award candidate’s suspension due to a retaliatory hit to the head — originally just one game, but extended to two on Wednesday morning — will pose an additional challenge for the Elis as they fight to maintain their NCAA Tournament and ECAC positions.
“Rob’s a terrific young man. He’s an asset to our university, an asset to our hockey program,” Allain said. “We’ll miss him, but we [have] to figure out how to win on Friday night. That’s our job right now.”
Without O’Gara, Repensky, Hitchcock and others, the battered Bulldogs will look for their fourth victory in a row Friday, when they travel to Hamilton, New York for a 7 p.m. puck drop.