Seeded seventh in the ECAC playoffs, the Bulldogs enter championship play looking to sweep Union for the third time this season in the first round.
Last weekend, Yale (13–14–2, 10–10–2 ECAC Hockey) concluded its regular season stationed in enemy territory with a 2–1 defeat over Princeton and a 5–0 loss to Quinnipiac. Since the Blue and White is ranked seventh upon entering the postseason, the Elis have clinched a home ice advantage in the first round of playoffs against the Dutchmen (7–23–3, 5–15–2). The Elis could not have received a better first matchup for optimal chances of moving on to the quarterfinals, as Union has yet to penetrate the Blue and White’s defensive line, who shut out the Dutchmen 2–0 in early December and again 5–0 in January. However, the postseason brings new challenges, as all teams are eager to remain in contention for the ECAC tournament crown.
“In the past we’ve played hard and we jumped on [Union] early,” forward Luke Stevens ’20 said. “They play a similar style to us and really work hard, so if we’re going to have success again we need to make sure we’re skating right from the drop Friday night and playing on our toes. It’s going to be a battle and we’re ready for that.”
Yale has had its ups and downs throughout the 2019-20 season, beginning with the graduation of last year’s top scorer, forward Joe Snively ’19. While the Bulldogs worked out how to fill the void, they dropped five games immediately after defeating Brown 3–2 in the season opener. The Blue and White also dealt with netminder Connor Hopkins ’23 and his season-ending meniscus tear, ultimately resorting to pulling up another goalie, Eddie Massaro ’21, from the Yale club hockey team.
Despite these hurdles, the Bulldogs found some traction in early December and since then they have been more consistent, putting up a 12–7–2 record.
“As a group we are excited for the playoffs to begin,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “This team has come a long way, battled through some real adversity and has continued to grow throughout the season. We believe our best hockey is ahead of us.”
Against Union, the Elis have found the most success compared to every other team that they have played. Yale is also the only team to have shut out the Dutchmen for both encounters this season. In the last match four different players found the back of the Union net, including a pair of goals from forward Curtis Hall ’22. Forward Justin Pearson ’22, who has been an integral part of the offensive line the past few weeks, also scored an unassisted shorthanded goal in the third period to extend the Yale lead to four.
The Bulldogs also demonstrated their ability to outplay the Dutchmen in their own rink. Earlier on in the season, the Elis skated to a 2–0 victory with goals from forwards Tyler Welsh ’21 and Luke Stevens ’20.
“Union plays a disciplined structured game, they are physical, have an outstanding work ethic, and find a way to block lots of shots,” Allain said. “The biggest reason that we have had some success against Union is because of the way that we defended in each of those two games. We were applying pressure, moving our feet and finishing our checks. It will be vital that we defend diligently this weekend.”
Union, once a national power, has fallen to the bottom of the league standings fairly quickly in the last few years. Since the 2017-18 season, the Dutchmen have lost about 10 league points per year, going from second in the conference with 33 points to 10th, with a meager 12 points accumulated over the course of the 2019-20 campaign. Just last year, Union made it into the national top-20 polls for 16 out of 22 weeks.
Though the Dutchmen will enter the first round of playoffs with a three-game losing streak, the Bulldogs are also coming off of a loss in which they fell 5–0 to No. 14 Quinnipiac. For the Elis, however, “playoffs [are] a new season,” defenseman Phil Kemp ’21 said.
“There is a lot of belief in our room, and that’s all that matters to us,” Kemp said. “We’re gonna play Yale hockey. Our team is at our best when we are playing fast. We want to be hard to play against, finish hits and defend like maniacs. Every guy pulls the rope. Playing for the seniors, playing for each other.”
The puck will drop at 7 p.m. on Friday at Ingalls Rink for the first of three possible games against Union, and the team with the best of three will advance to the ECAC quarterfinals.
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