Head coach Keith Allain had his work cut out for him heading into the 2017–18 season, needing to replace the 43 percent of his goals scored by last year’s now-departed seniors. Although the Yale men’s hockey team has struggled through its first nine games, the first years have provided a consistently bright spot.
The seven rookies got off to a hot start this season, contributing a combined 11 points in the first six games. The group of first years — all of whom boast post-high school experience playing junior or U.S. developmental hockey — has proven to be Allain’s deepest recruiting class in recent years. The Eli rookies have recorded a point in six out of seven games in which the team has scored, and they rank third in the ECAC among first-year classes in goals.
“We as a class are developing chemistry with the guys who have been here and working well together with them,” defender Brian Matthews ’21 said. “That chemistry and ability to trust each other on the ice leads to us playing better and having success. We’re taking steps in the right direction and just need to keep building on that and working hard everyday in practice.”
The first goal of the 2017–18 season came off the stick of a first year, as defender Phil Kemp ’21 found the back of the net in Yale’s home opener against Brown. The Connecticut native, who co-captained the U.S. U-18 national team prior to arriving in New Haven, tallied the lone Bulldog goal in the season-opening loss and followed it up with an assist the next night in the second leg of Yale’s doubleheader with the Bears.
Joining Kemp in the scoring books by the second game were fellow first-year forwards Brett Jewell ’21 and Dante Palecco ’21. Jewell notched his debut collegiate goal to give Yale an advantage that would ultimately lead to the team’s first win of the season.
Of all the first-year stars, Palecco has shone the brightest so far. The New Jersey native tallied an assist against Brown and went on to post a five-point weekend, including four goals against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. That display earned him ECAC Offensive Player of the Week and ECAC Rookie of the Week honors.
Forward Kevin O’Neil ’21 has shared time with Palecco, playing on the first line alongside Yale’s two leading scorers from last year, forward and captain Ryan Hitchcock ’18 and forward Joe Snively ’19. O’Neil has found his way onto the scoresheet as well, scoring his first collegiate goal in a monumental rivalry win over then-No. 3 Harvard.
“[O’Neil and Palecco] are both great players,” Hitchcock said of his linemates. “Kevin is a really smart hockey player and can be a goal scorer and an effective passer. Dante has an incredible shot and is a great goal scorer, so I know when I’m playing with him I have to get him the puck in areas where he can get that great shot off. They’re both going to be huge factors in our team success for the rest of the year.”
The first years credit much of their success both on and off the ice to their older teammates. Out of Yale’s 10 upper-level players, six played in at least 27 games last season while three of the remaining four saw the ice in at least 15 games in the 2016–17 campaign. That veteran experience is already paying dividends for Yale’s group of first years.
Palecco said that the upper-level students have helped the first years acclimate to both the demands of college hockey and Yale’s rigorous academics, especially after taking over a year off from school to play junior hockey.
“The older guys have been there from the start for us,” Palecco said. “They really have made it easy for us, and it’s nice to have people who have gone through what we are going through now and sharing experiences and helpful tips.”
While Palecco leads all rookies in goals and is tied with Kemp for the most assists among first years, all members of the class of 2021 have contributed either by tallying points or adding depth behind more experienced starters.
Now in their second year without any members of the 2013 National Championship squad, the Elis hope their talented group of first years will bring a new championship culture in New Haven in hopes of propelling a proud program to its first ECAC championship since 2011.
“Our class contributes in many different ways between the seven of us,” Palecco said. “I think we have a really unique group with a great mix of personalities that bring a lot of positives to the team and within the class of ourselves. On the ice, we all bring a little bit of a different game to the table and think that will help in the long run.”
Although six of the seven first years have appeared in at least three games this season, goaltender Nicholas MacNab ’21 has yet to see any ice time nine games into the 2017–18 campaign. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound netminder ranked in the top-half of the United States Hockey League in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts last season, but he will likely have to wait patiently behind fellow goalies Corbin Kaczperski ’20 and starter Sam Tucker ’19.
The Bulldogs will look to end a four-game losing streak when they travel to upstate New York this weekend to take on Rensselaer and No. 19 Union.
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