January 24, 2012

ECAC Hockey Journal: Time slipping away for Yale

By Dan Guttenplan

 Perhaps the biggest surprise as we head into the final month of the ECAC Hockey season has been Yale's struggles against league foes.

Yale senior Brian O'Neill (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

After falling to Union and RPI at home last weekend, the Elis (8-9-2 overall, 5-6-1 ECAC) sit 10th among ECAC teams in points (11) and ninth in winning percentage (.458).

It's a far cry from the last three years, when the Elis routinely ranked among the elite teams nationally. Last year's team went 28-7-1, won the ECAC tournament and earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps Yale's early-season struggles weren't completely unexpected when you factor in that nine players graduated from last year's team. However, with a strong freshman class, the Elis were expected to get better as the season progressed.

That hasn't transpired. They are 0-3-1 in their last four ECAC games and 2-4-1 since winter break, with the lone wins coming against Bentley and Princeton.

Perhaps no player was more excited for the start of this season than Yale captain Brian O'Neill, who emerged as a future Hobey Baker Award candidate when he tallied 20 goals and 25 assists last winter. O'Neill, a senior forward, drew a game misconduct during Yale's NCAA loss to Minnesota-Duluth due to a hit to the head. He figured to be primed for redemption this winter.

"Expectations were really high coming into the year," said O'Neill, who has 12 goals and 10 assists this season. "Our No. 1 goal is still to win the national championship. Everyone still has that goal. Obviously, when you lose nine seniors, especially the seniors we lost, there are going to be growing pains."

Yale appeared to bypass those growing pains at the start of the season, when it posted a 5-1-1 record through Nov. 19. After opening their league schedule with a loss to ECAC frontrunner Cornell, the Elis ran off four straight wins over Colgate, RPI, Union and UConn.

The growing pains have followed. Yale is 3-8-1 overall and 2-5-1 in the league since Nov. 19.

"We've struggled with our structure; consistency has been a problem for us," O'Neill said. "We need to get back to the basics and make sure everyone is where they're supposed to be on the ice. We haven't had great offensive intensity, meaning we need to get pucks to the net and start putting up 40-45 shots a game like we did last year."

O'Neill believes the Elis are starting to turn a corner, and it's far too early to count them out. Remember: last year's team put together a late-season charge, outscoring opponents in the final three games of the ECAC tournament by a score of 14-0.

"I guess it's human nature to relax or be complacent after playing so many big games at the end of last year," O'Neill said. "I don't think our seniors, juniors or sophomores were too affected by that. We've had other great years before and didn't experience the hangover. Either way, it's time to start playing like we're capable of playing."

Game of the Week

Yale at Harvard, Friday

It's as close to a must-win for the Elis as they've had all season, as they sit only a point out of sixth place and two shy of fourth in the ECAC standings. Harvard (4-6-8, 3-4-6 ECAC) leads the overall series 133-77-18 and has gone 29-4-3 against Yale at Bright Hockey Center.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Cornell (11-4-4, 8-1-3 ECAC): The Big Red have not lost in 2011, and their two-point lead over Union in the ECAC standings is all the more impressive when you consider they have a game in hand.

2. Union (13-6-6, 7-3-3): The Dutchmen will likely look back on their loss to Brown Saturday night and cringe. They led 2-0 before the Bears came back and finished off the season sweep.

3. Quinnipiac (13-8-5, 5-5-4): The Bobcats are in the midst of a break between games that spans from Jan. 14 to Feb. 3. They can sit back and watch the ECAC teams beat up on one another.

4. Colgate (12-9-3, 6-5-1 ECAC): The Raiders entered the winter break with a record of 5-0-1 in their previous six games. They have stumbled in 2012, logging a record of 0-5-1. Tough to figure.

5. Clarkson (11-10-5, 5-4-3): Just when it seemed like Clarkson's season was going downhill, the Golden Knights have changed the momentum. They snapped a four-game losing streak with a 2-2 tie against Brown Jan. 14. They have since posted wins over Yale and St. Lawrence.

6. Brown (8-8-3, 5-5-2): The Bears looked primed for a brutal weekend when they trailed Union 2-0 after one period Saturday one day after falling to RPI, 3-0. Two periods later, they were pleased with the two points they earned in a 3-2 comeback victory.

7. Harvard (4-6-8, 3-4-6): It could have been a lot worse last weekend for the Crimson, who escaped from a brutal road set at Colgate and Cornell with two ties. Here's a weird stat: Eight of Harvard's last 11 games have gone to overtime.

8. Yale (8-9-2, 5-6-1): Tough to put the Elis any higher when they've lost consecutive games to Clarkson, Union and RPI. Perhaps a game at Harvard Friday will provide motivation to change the trajectory of their season.

9. Dartmouth (8-8-2, 5-5-1): The Big Green likely knocked Colgate out of the top 20 with a 5-4 overtime road victory Saturday. The teams were dead even in the game with 28 shots a piece and nine different goal-scorers.

10. Princeton (6-10-5, 5-8-2): The Tigers have only one loss in their last six games. Unfortunately for Princeton, four of the team's next five ECAC games are on the road.

11. RPI (6-17-1, 3-8-1): A round of applause for RPI coach Seth Appert, who has his team playing as well as any other in the ECAC after losing 16 of its first 19 games. The Engineers were the only ECAC team to collect four points last weekend with wins at Brown and at Yale.

12. St. Lawrence (8-13-3, 4-7-1): The Saints are 0-4-1 in their last five games. They have scored one goal or fewer in three of their last five. Tough to keep them ahead of RPI with the way the Engineers have been playing.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.