Rebecca Yan

After a middling season that saw the Bulldogs finish with a losing record both in and out of the conference, the Yale women’s hockey team returns to the ice looking to break into the upper echelon of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

The Elis spent 2015 toiling in the bottom half of the ECAC, dominating some opponents, while falling short against others. Multiple losses to conference foes Clarkson, Colgate, Cornell, Harvard and Princeton stymied the Bulldogs’ hopes of competing for the league crown. This year, however, a more experienced crop of upperclassmen have led Yale to a solid start in exhibition play, during which the Bulldogs tied Brown 2–2 and vanquished McGill by a narrow 1–0 margin.

“It’s great to start playing games and it’s obviously a lot more fun, especially to see what the freshmen can do,” defender Mallory Souliotis ’18 said. “Everyone is gaining their confidence, and we played some good [exhibition] hockey at times, so we are excited to play two games this weekend.”

This season, Yale will be bolstered by a bevy of returning athletes, many of whom saw significant action a year ago. Captain and forward Krista Yip-Chuck ’17 has taken command of the Elis: In addition to her five goals and 15 assists a year ago, she led the squad with three power-play goals. Forward Phoebe Staenz ’17, who tied for second amongst Bulldogs last year with nine goals, returns to the lineup as well. Joining Yip-Chuck and Staenz are forward Eden Murray ’18 and Souliotis, who netted seven and four goals last year, respectively. Souliotis also led the team in assists with 21.

Last Saturday, when McGill came to Ingalls Rink, Yale’s returning skaters put on a show. Of the Bulldogs’ 28 shots, members of the 2015–16 squad took 24, including Souliotis’ game-winning goal three-and-a-half minutes into the final period. Meanwhile, goalie Hanna Mandl ’17 saved all 32 of McGill’s shots, preserving her team’s narrow lead. Mandl recorded 670 saves last year, fifth in the Ivy League, and this weekend’s performance suggests she could overtake that figure.

“[We worked this offseason on] our conditioning,” Murray said. “That was a huge factor that our coach stressed needed improvement from last season. Many of our returning players have come back stronger and fitter for this coming season, and it’s really exciting to see that.”

Though plenty of talent remains, the Elis will need to make up for a large exodus of productivity. Three of the team’s top four goal-scorers last season have graduated, including former captain Janelle Ferrara ’16, who notched 12 goals. Also gone are forwards Hanna Åström ’16 and Jamie Haddad ’16, who combined for another 17 scores.

The team might be able to look to a new crop of freshmen to fill in the gap left by the class of 2016. Defender Saroya Tinker ’20 was a member of the Canadian U18 national team and will be a valuable asset to head coach Joakim Flygh as he attempts to shore up a defense that allowed 90 goals a year ago. Another intriguing newcomer is forward Kirsten Nergaard ’20, who captained the Phillips Exeter team last year and has frequently been selected to the USA Hockey National Development Camps. Skating beside the likes of Yip-Chuck, Staenz and Murray, she can serve as another goal-scoring threat.

“[The freshmen] are going to find different ways to contribute,” Flygh said. “They’ve come in with a good pedigree, so it’s just a matter of getting adjusted to college hockey.”

Yale will be looking to improve upon a series of disappointing finishes in the ECAC. Since their 2007–08 campaign, the Elis have finished no higher than fifth in the 12-team conference and have ended 10th or lower on four occasions. They face a daunting challenge to put themselves in contention for a conference title.

In the Bulldogs’ way stand three truly menacing squads. Last year’s ECAC champion, Quinnipiac, finished 3–1 against Yale as the Bobcats cruised to a 30–3–5 record. Yale’s neighborhood rivals were ranked third in the nation in the latest USCHO.com poll. Just behind the Bobcats last year was Clarkson, which scored 140 goals — nearly double Yale’s 71. Clarkson ranks just behind Quinnipiac in the latest polls, at eighth. Finally, Ivy League foe Princeton was third in the ECAC last season and received 14 votes in the most recent USCHO.com poll, placing them just outside the top 10. The Bulldogs will face each of these imposing teams twice in the coming season, making a conference title quite a reach.

But the Elis are not showing any fear.

“Our goal is to win a national championship,” Souliotis said. “If you ask anyone in that room, we all have that goal, but we need to take it one game at a time and not get complacent with our play and continue to push the pace. That starts with Ivys and ECACs, and we will go from there. We trust each other, the coaches and the process to help do the rest.”

Yale opens its season with a double-header against the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers. The first puck drops at Ingalls Rink at 6 p.m. on Friday night, while the second game against the Tigers begins 3 p.m. on Saturday.