NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It had been a long time — 17 games, in fact, dating back to last season — since the Yale Bulldogs had skated off the ice as winners. And so when the team found itself in the rare position of holding a lead over an opponent, it made certain not to let it slip away.
Instead, the Bulldogs did quite the opposite, scoring goal after goal until the game was over and Yale had finally won in a 7-1 romp over the visiting Princeton Tigers.
“It’s a huge monkey off our backs,” said a smiling Matt Modelski, who made 36 stops for Yale in net. “The first win is always the toughest.”
The contest was a far cry from the last meeting between the two teams last Tuesday in which the Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 6-3 in a sloppy game at Baker Rink in Princeton.
But it was that previous meeting that gave the Elis the feeling that they could pick up a win, as Yale outshot Princeton 28-23 despite being on the wrong end of the final score.
“Playing Princeton on Tuesday, we knew we’d outplayed them but we didn’t get the bounces,” said Joe Zappala. “That had been the story of our season.”
Zappala’s personal fortunes mirrored the Elis Saturday, as the forward who had led the nation in game-winning goals last season but had scored only once this season in a 5-2 loss to Brown finally regained some of his touch. Zappala opened scoring for the Elis and added another goal and two assists to finish the game with four points and the game’s first star.
The junior forward was not the only player who finally played up to expectations. Both of Yale’s top two lines led the way for the Bulldogs, combining for 15 of the 18 points that Yale picked up.
Christian Jensen scored twice for the Bulldogs, while Jeff Hristovski and Zach Mayer earned a goal apiece and Brad Mills and Blair Yaworski contributed with multiple assists.
“As we become a real good hockey team we’re going to continue to need those lines to chip in,” said Yale head coach Tim Taylor.
Apart from the top six forwards, Yale’s Modelski put in his best performance of the season, finishing with 36 saves, one shy of a shutout. In the first period especially, Modelski came up with some huge stops that invigorated both the Ingalls crowd of 3,175 and the Yale bench.
“He’s the reason why we came out of the first period so confident,” said Zappala. “He was on top of his game tonight.”
The Bulldogs came out of the tunnel like a team possessed, and everything about their play over the first period, from their relentless forechecking to their steady penalty kill, was worlds apart from what Bulldog fans had been treated to thus far this season.
With 4:55 elapsed in the game, the puck was fed from the left side to Mayer, who stood waiting in the slot. Mayer’s shot was stopped by Princeton goaltender Eric Leroux, but Zappala swooped in to jam the puck home and give Yale the early 1-0 victory.
Throughout the first period, the Tigers were given two power-play chances against Yale’s typically woeful penalty-kill unit, which had given up an average of nearly three power-play goals per game this season. But the Bulldogs stepped up their shorthanded team and limited Princeton to four shots total, all of which were stopped by Modelski.
The sophomore goaltender’s agile style, described by Taylor as charismatic, made even his more routine stops seem thrilling. But there was no denying that his authoritative glove save just after Princeton’s second power play expired was a huge play, as it saved the Elis from what looked to be an inevitable game-tying goal.
“Right from the beginning of the game I had a feeling he was there to play,” Taylor said. “The kids were feeding off that.”
Previously this season, Yale had held a one-goal lead for a cumulative 12:57 in nine games. But with less than a minute remaining in the period, Brad Mills won a faceoff in the Yale zone and moved the puck to Jensen, whose long wrist shot from the far hash marks evaded Leroux and gave the Elis their first two-goal lead of the season.
“I feel like all the bounces we haven’t been getting came back to us today,” Jensen said. “I definitely didn’t expect our first win to be a blowout, but we’ve been working hard.”
Yale began the second period much the same as the first, as Mayer ensured that the Bulldogs would not lose their lead. After being set up by Yaworski and Zappala, the junior forward took a wrister from the slot that sailed past Leroux and gave Yale the 3-0 lead in front of their delighted crowd.
As happened in the first period, the Bulldogs controlled the tempo for most of the second but were outshot by the Tigers, 12-10. Modelski was solid again in goal to extend his shutout through two periods.
Late in the period with less than three minutes to play, Matt Craig took a hard shot from the point that Hristovski hit in to bring Yale’s lead to 4-0. It was the first time this season Yale had scored more than three goals, which they did against the Tigers on Tuesday.
The score would be the last of Leroux’s evening, as the Princeton netminder was pulled in favor of backup B.J. Sklapsky.
The third period was no different from the opening two, as Yale scored early. Just 24 seconds into the frame, Jensen netted his second of the game off assists from Hristovski and Mills. Less than a minute later, Zappala faked out Sklapsky and tucked the puck into the back of the net for his second goal and fourth point of the contest.
“I think we got better each period,” Taylor said. “Finally, there was a game we were in that wasn’t ruled by special teams.”
Midway through the period, Modelski’s shutout was spoiled by Princeton’s Erik Pridham, who connected a pass from Neil Stevenson-Moore and Ian McNally to put the Tigers on the scoreboard.
After a quiet second half to the third period, sophomore defenseman Bill LeClerc put the exclamation point on Yale’s win, scoring his second goal of the season off assists from Brad Mills and Yale captain Nick Shalek. LeClerc’s goal, which came with eight seconds to play, gave the Bulldogs their final 7-1 lead.
“[In previous games] we were waiting for someone to step up for us,” Zappala said. “Tonight 20 guys stepped up.”
Despite being enthused about the victory, the Elis know that they cannot take their eyes off their upcoming weekend in upstate New York.
“We’re gonna have fun [with the win],” Modelski said. “But tomorrow we start thinking about Cornell and Colgate.”