It isn’t often that one game defines a team’s season. It is even more unusual when that game is the season opener.
When the Yale Bulldogs lost 8-4 to North Dakota last October, and repeated it with a 10-0 defeat the next night, it signaled the start of a season of defensive woes for a team that had won 18 games in 2002-03.
“We have to take care of our deficiencies to be a better team,” explained head coach Tim Taylor. “Those are pretty clearly defined. We allowed too many goals for the type of team we had.
“We were a good, fast, strong team balanced on all fronts. But [defense] has been our focus. All of our dry-land work has been with a defensive commitment to really knuckle down.”
Judging by the preseason polls (take them for what they are worth), many don’t expect the Bulldogs to have much bite this season. But to believe the hype — or lack thereof in this case — is to underestimate a Taylor-coached team. See the 2002-03 version if you need a recent example.
Taylor is already a believer. He’s positive that if his club can shore up its own zone, “we can surprise some people. We have good players back.”
Among those are juniors Joe Zappala, Christian Jensen and Jeff Hristovski, who ranked 1-2-3 in scoring for Yale a year ago. Zappala led the way with 18 goals, including nine game-winners, and was consistently the most dangerous player on the ice with the game on the line.
Defensively, the Bulldogs played three freshmen on a regular basis: Matt Cohen, Shawn Mole and Bill LeClerc. At times, the inexperience was evident, especially since two of the three were natural freshmen — as in 17 and 18 when they laced up the skates for the first time in New Haven.
“I expect Cohen, Mole and LeClerc to make the same set of adjustments that our three sophomore forwards did last year,” explained Taylor in comparison to Zappala, Jensen and Hristovski. “If they can do on defense what the others did up front, we’ll be a different team.”
Between the pipes, this remains Josh Gartner’s club.
“For the second straight year,” said Taylor, “Josh will come in as our number-one goaltender. During our seven-game win streak in the middle of last season, he was exceptional. But over time last year, we asked him to make far too many saves in our wins and losses.”
A better defense in front of the junior will help his cause. One of the players Taylor thinks will be part of that solution is rookie Robert Page.
“He has the potential to be a top-four defensemen as a freshman,” said the coach, especially when one considers the opening left after Joe Callahan’s early departure. “Page has good size and transition game. He moves the puck from defense to offense very quickly and well.”
Taylor is high on the Bulldogs’ other recruits as well.
“It think it is a terrific class,” he said, before admitting with a laugh that such a line is repeated by every coach in the nation at this time of year. “We have five outstanding forwards in Jean-Francois Boucher, Will Engasser (a 6-foot-1, 237-pounder), David Germain, Matthew Thomey and Blair Yaworski.
“All five kids will challenge for playing time. All, in time, have top-two line potential.”
The first test for Yale will come in the final weekend of October when it hosts Alabama-Huntsville and St. Cloud State.