Midway through the second period of the men’s hockey game between No. 10 Yale and No. 15 Cornell on Saturday, the student section at Lynah Rink began chanting colorful insults in the general direction of Eli goaltender Alex Lyon ’17, deriding the quality of the junior netminder’s play.
Considering that the Bulldogs’ backstop is on track to lead the country in goals against average and save percentage for the second consecutive year, and that his team was beating the home side 3–1 at the time, it was a rather irrational decision by the famously rowdy Big Red students. The jeers were one of the least pressing obstacles the Elis overcame during the weekend in order to notch a pivotal pair of victories.
Injury-riddled and with its roster further depleted due to the suspension of All-American defenseman Rob O’Gara ’16, Yale (16–5–4, 11–4–3 ECAC Hockey) opened the two-day road trip by blanking Colgate (8–20–2, 4–12–2) 3–0 and finished it off with a dominant 4–2 dismantling of Cornell (12–8–5, 7–7–4) in front of a sold-out, red-clad crowd. For the second consecutive weekend, the Bulldogs — playing with just three forward lines — scored seven goals while Lyon allowed only two. Thanks to a loss by No. 9 Harvard to No. 18 Rensselaer, the Elis now hold sole possession of second place in the ECAC standings.
“I’m just really proud of our guys,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “We’ve dealt with what we’ve had to deal with, and to come up here and play two tough opponents well — I just think we’re continuing to grow as a hockey team.”
Despite the offensive production that ultimately transpired on the weekend, the Elis waited a full 35 minutes before lighting the lamp Friday night against the Raiders, who entered Friday night having lost five of six games. The Elis failed to score in the opening period for the first time in six games, getting outshot 9–8 in the frame.
When Yale did begin to manage to draw first blood, the goal came from forward Cody Learned ’16, who headed to New York having scored in three straight games and came back to Connecticut with his streak at an ECAC-high five. With the Bulldogs riding momentum following three consecutive penalty kills, forward Carson Cooper ’16 sent a pass to the slot, where Learned rushed to the puck and one-timed the shot past Colgate goaltender Charlie Finn for his fourth goal in as many contests.
“My linemates deserve a lot of the credit,” Learned said, discussing his recent performance. “It’s great playing with them, they do a great job and I’ve just been fortunate to get some good chances and luckily they’re going in.”
Less than two minutes later, the Bulldogs would be provided with another scoring opportunity when Finn failed to cleanly handle a shot from forward Stu Wilson ’16. Forward Joe Snively ’19 picked up the rebound off Finn’s pads before spinning around and sending a shot past the junior goalie for the second Eli tally.
A goal from forward JM Piotrowski ’19 seven minutes into the third period put the finishing touches on the Bulldogs’ fourth shutout of the season. A flawless performance from Lyon, who turned away all 36 Raider shots he faced, helped Yale overcome an eight-shot deficit.
Continuing their trip through upstate New York, the Bulldogs traveled to Ithaca to take on a notoriously bruising Cornell crew they had not beaten on the road in three years. But this time, the Big Red team that the Elis were slated to face on Saturday had won just a single game in its last nine, and had not defeated an opponent better than 0.500 since before Jan. 1.
And although Cornell’s physicality managed to hold Yale scoreless when the two teams battled to a scoreless draw on Nov. 20 in New Haven, it took scarcely over 120 seconds into an Eli-dominated first period before the visitors’ zero on the scoreboard changed to a one, and just 182 seconds more before the one became a two.
With Cornell forward Dwyer Tschantz in the box due to a boarding minor, Yale captain and defenseman Mitch Witek ’16 faked a shot from the high slot, creating separation between him and his defender. Witek stepped into the open lane and fired a blast right at Big Red goaltender Mitch Gillam.
Gillam stopped Witek’s effort, but could not control the puck. It bounced free, and forward John Hayden ’17 found and cleaned up the rebound for his 13th score of the season. And barely three minutes later, Yale doubled its advantage when Cooper put another puck past Gillam.
“I think getting the early goals helped us with a short bench,” Allain said. “It’s a lot easier playing from the front than from behind.”
Though Cornell managed to keep the Bulldogs from extending their lead any further in the period, the 19–6 Eli shot advantage in the frame and a cross-checking major penalty on Cornell captain and forward John Knisley with the clock running down set the stage for another Yale goal at the start of the second period.
That third score came from Hayden — his second of the night and fourth in four games — with a bit of help from Gillam. The junior Eli sent a relatively soft, low, backhanded shot towards the goal, which the netminder appeared not to expect. His delayed reaction allowed the puck to squeeze between his blocker and the net, and resulted in him being replaced for goalie Hayden Stewart after allowing three goals in under 23 minutes.
But the raucous Big Red student section refused to give up hope, and its captain rewarded the home crowd with a highlight-reel play midway through the second. 8:45 into the period, Knisley carried the puck over the blue line, wheeled around the defense, headed straight for the net and managed to stick it past Lyon.
The senior’s goal woke up the crowd, and were it not for two momentum-neutralizing penalty kills by the Bulldogs’ top-ranked shorthanded unit over the next 20 minutes of action, the home side might have been well on its way to a comeback. Though Cornell had several close chances with the man advantage, Lyon and his defensemen turned them all away.
And momentum fully swung back towards the Elis in the third period when Learned took a pass from Cooper off a Big Red turnover and threw the puck into an open half-net. Though Cornell scored with just over 30 seconds remaining, Yale closed out the victory without trouble, putting the team in strong position to claim a first-round ECAC Tournament bye with just two regular-season weekends remaining.“Coming here in a hostile environment … and [sweeping] on the road is always huge,” defenseman Dan O’Keefe ’17 said. “So this was a great weekend for everybody.”
For the first time in three weekends, “everybody” included defenseman Nate Repensky ’18, who came back to the Bulldogs’ lineup and saw limited ice time on Yale’s power play. And with the win at Lynah, the Elis secured their first road-conference sweep of the 2015–16 campaign and extended their season-best winning streak to five games.
The Bulldogs will return home to welcome St. Lawrence and No. 20 Clarkson for senior weekend next Friday and Saturday. Puck drop for both games is scheduled for 7 p.m.