The last time the No. 7 Yale men’s hockey team played a game, according to head coach Keith Allain ’80, “seems like a million years ago.” But even back then, Yale and Dartmouth might have been playing against each other. The programs first met in 1907, a 4–2 Bulldog victory, and have faced off 212 times since.
In other words, there is little that this historic rivalry has yet to experience. But come Friday night, it will see another one of those rare firsts: a playoff series in New Haven.
The Elis (19–6–4, 14–5–3 ECAC Hockey) open their postseason by hosting the Big Green (16–15–1, 11–11–0) in a best-of-three ECAC Hockey Tournament quarterfinal this weekend, marking Yale’s first action since Feb. 27. In the teams’ only other postseason meetings, both of which were early-round conference matchups in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth knocked off Yale two games to one in 2005 and swept the Bulldogs in two contests a year later.
This time, second-seeded Yale received a bye in last week’s first round and watched as Dartmouth, the seventh seed, edged Colgate 2–1, with the Big Green needing three overtimes across its two victories to secure a trip to Ingalls Rink.
“[One] of the positives for [Dartmouth] is that they’re battle tested. They’ve played in and won two playoff overtime games, and there’s something to be said for that experience,” Allain said. “And I think one of the negatives is, hopefully, they’ll be fatigued. They played three long games on the weekend, and they’re going to have to play a couple this weekend here. We’ll see which one of those things comes to the forefront.”
Last weekend raised additional questions for Dartmouth at the individual level as well. The Big Green’s goaltending situation, in flux all season, still appears unresolved: James Kruger started games one and two against the Raiders, giving up four goals in the latter, while Charles Grant took the net for game three.
And the conditions of two veteran skaters for the Big Green may also be up in the air. Defender Ryan Bullock missed all three games against Colgate, while first-team All-Ivy forward Jack Barre sustained an upper-body injury in Friday’s first period and missed the rest of the series. The Dartmouth reported that as of earlier this week, Big Green head coach Bob Gaudet did not expect either senior to be available against the Bulldogs.
Dartmouth’s attack did still manage to light the lamp 10 times without Barre last weekend. But it did so against a Colgate defense that allowed 3.57 goals per game this year, good for worst in the ECAC. The Elis’ mark of 1.66 paces not only the ECAC, but all of Division I.
Nevertheless, Allain noted that the Yale defense will need a focused effort against Dartmouth’s offense, which he described as up-tempo and opportunistic.
“They get four guys in on the attack, and so they’re really dangerous that way,” Allain said. “If you don’t protect the puck coming to the neutral zone, you’re going to be in trouble.”
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, will be sporting their healthiest squad since December, thanks to the returns of forwards Andrew Gaus ’19 and Ryan Hitchcock ’18. Gaus has been absent from the lineup since Jan. 10, while Hitchcock, who was injured by a hard and suspension-inducing hit from Princeton defender Tommy Davis on Feb. 26, still holds the fourth-highest point and goal total on the team despite missing 11 of the last 18 games.
A practice schedule that included extra days off, as well as Yale’s first weekend without a contest in over two months, was also restorative for the team at large, according to players.
“All of last week was fantastic,” captain and defender Mitch Witek ’16 said. “I think it’s as much of a mental break as anything. You can separate hockey and the rest of your life, and be able to come back and 100 percent ready to go.”
If past contests are indicative of the upcoming series, Yale possesses the upper hand. Although the Big Green established a quick 2–0 lead in the first period during a Nov. 7 game in Hanover, the Bulldogs dominated the scoring in the remaining minutes, surging ahead to take the contest 4–2.
The teams last collided on Feb. 5 in what would be an even more decisive victory for the Elis. In the 5–1 routing, forward Stu Wilson ’16 scored two goals in the opening six minutes, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
But Dartmouth, whose first loss to Yale came during a 3–7–1 start to the Big Green’s season, sports a 0.619 winning percentage in the 2016 calendar year, fourth-best in the conference. And Yale knows that in the ECAC — and especially in a playoff atmosphere — nothing can be taken for granted.
“I think we’re confident every time we go in to play a game,” forward JM Piotrowski ’19 said. “It’s ECAC, anybody can beat anybody. You see upsets happen all the time. We’re definitely not overlooking them. They did what they had to do to get the chance to play us, so we have to respect that and take it for what it’s worth.”
Games one and two are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, respectively. If necessary, game three will be held on Sunday at 5 p.m.