The Yale men’s hockey team looks to continue its superb play since winter break with two tricky home games against conference rivals Princeton and No. 19 Quinnipiac.
The Elis (10–7–4, 6–5–3 ECAC Hockey) swept Brown last weekend to run their unbeaten streak to six games and keep themselves firmly in the hunt for a playoff bye in the upcoming ECAC tournament. Though the Tigers (8–11–2, 3–9–2) and Bobcats (14–11–2, 8–6–1) both pose challenges for the Bulldogs, Yale’s recent level of play could spell another weekend sweep.
“Everyone is a little more comfortable, a little more confident, learning all the systems a little better, figuring out the forecheck,” forward Evan Smith ’20 said. “Playing our hockey, playing our game, doing what the coaches want and executing; these are the games you have to chalk up on the calendar. [It’s going to] be a lot of fun, a lot of energy … and we have to bring it all.”
With four weekends remaining in the regular season, the Elis lie in sixth place in the ECAC amid a pack of teams vying for a spot in the top four. No. 14 St. Lawrence, Union and No. 5 Harvard occupy the top three slots in the conference and appear locked in for the top seeds in the tournament at the end of the season, with a five-point gap between the Crimson and the fourth-place Bobcats.
Quinnipiac, Cornell, Yale and Clarkson occupy the next four spots on the standings, but only one point separates each of the teams. These four teams will battle in the coming weeks for the No. 4 spot in the conference tournament, which guarantees a first-round bye and an easier route to the NCAA tournament. Yale checks in at No. 26 in the current edition of the Pairwise rankings, leaving the Bulldogs on the outside looking in if they fail to secure the ECAC’s automatic bid.
Princeton comes into New Haven after one of the program’s biggest wins of the decade, a defeat of then-No. 4 Penn State in front of a crowd of over 15,000 at the Wells Fargo Center — home of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. The comeback upset saw the Tigers score three unanswered goals to close out the game after being down 4–2 heading into the final period.
Facing Princeton has proved deceptive for Yale in years past. Early last season, the Bulldogs suffered a 4–2 defeat to the Tigers before handing out a 6–0 shellacking as the year drew to a close.
The story of Princeton’s season has been one of inconsistency, as the Tigers have picked up six wins over ranked teams but have missed opportunities against more mediocre competition. The Princeton defense ranks as the sixth worst in the nation, and has conceded five or more goals on eight separate occasions this year. Senior goaltender Colton Phinney, who will start in net for the Tigers, has compiled just a 0.898 save percentage on the season, ranking him in the lower third of regular NCAA netminders.
The Eli offense, meanwhile, has roared to life in recent weeks, with 16 goals in its last four games. Captain and forward John Hayden ’17 leads the Bulldogs with 16 goals as the only goal-scorer in double digits. The senior also plays a pivotal role on a power play which served as a bulwark for Yale on four occasions last weekend. Hayden has netted 10 times with an opposing skater in the box, the second best mark in the country, and has contributed nearly half of the Bulldog goals on the player advantage.
Though Princeton forward Ryan Kuffner leads his team with 10 goals on the season, forward Max Véronneau tops the roster with 25 points, including a pair of assists against Nittany Lions.
“[Princeton is] certainly on the rise,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “I think the new group down there has done a great job. They were better last year than they were the year before, and they’re better this year than they were last year. They have a couple lines that have some speed and size. … They’re going to be a tough out, no question about it.”
Saturday’s home date against Quinnipiac is one the Bulldogs have had circled on their calendar entering the season; the in-state rivalry was most recently marked by the pair of three-goal Bobcat routs over Yale last season, including a 4–1 win to snap the Elis’ nine-game win streak.
Quinnipiac has significantly less horsepower than last year’s team, which cruised to the final of the NCAA tournament before a catastrophic goalie blunder opened the doors for a 5–1 North Dakota win. The Bobcats have dropped two of their last three games, including a 4–2 stunner last Saturday night to an Arizona State program that didn’t exist two years ago. Although Quinnipiac lies two points ahead of Yale, the Bobcats have also endured an inconsistent campaign with a mix of commendable victories and head-scratching losses.
Quinnipiac knows how to light up the scoreboard at both ends, having conceded five goals on five occasions while putting up five or more scores six times. Of the weapons in Bobcats’ balanced offense, which features 15 skaters with eight or more points, only forward Tim Clifton has lit the lamp more than 10 times.
The Yale defense has improved tremendously in recent weeks, conceding just eight goals in its past six games. Boosted by the return of veteran defender Anthony Walsh ’19, backstopped expertly by the tandem of Patrick Spano ’17 and Sam Tucker ’19 and helped by a team commitment to defensive focus in all three zones, the defense will hope to stifle both Quinnipiac and Princeton and provide a solid platform to continue the team’s winning run.
“Our [defense] is starting to click,” defender Adam Larkin ’18 said. “It’s nice to have [Walsh] back. We’ve been working on little details … and a big one for us is communication. On top of that, our goalies have been playing really well. [Our success comes from] a combination of all those things [and] being a little bit more familiar with each other.”
Yale faces off against Princeton at 7 p.m. Friday and Quinnipiac at 7 p.m. Saturday.