Similar product, higher hopes developing for talented Yale

Anyone with more awareness than a plate of potato salad or a Gold Glove voter knows that Yale has been good lately.

Anyone east of the CCHA ought to realize by now that Yale is crazy good, and anyone in ECAC Hockey is sure to know that the Bulldogs are a national contender … and a darned fun one, at that.

With all due respect to Cornell, they ain’t winning titles by playing Big Red hockey down New Haven way. It’s more like Joe Montana and the West Coast Offense. To wit:

  • Seniors Broc Little and Denny Kearney are tied with each other for the national lead with 2.5 points per game, and junior Brian O’Neill ranks fourth with 2.25. Seven Elis have scored a point per game so far.
  • That same trio of Little, Kearney and O’Neill has combined for 15 goals — with an even five apiece, no less. That’s good enough for a four-way first-place draw atop the national leaderboard. (The fourth musketeer is none other than Princeton’s Matt Arhontas, featured briefly in the latest ECAC blog entry.) Before anyone begins jumping to some silly assumptions, let it be noted that no Yalies rank within the top 30 nationally in power-play goals.
  • Little, Kearney and sophomore Andrew Miller have each accumulated five assists to date, good for sixth nationally in assists per game. Two other Bulldogs players, senior defenseman Mike Matczak and the aforementioned O’Neill, have four assists apiece.
  • Matczak is one of only eight D-I blueliners to hold a point-a-game average as of this moment.
  • Senior goalie Ryan Rondeau is beginning to allay fears of another chaotic year in the crease, maintaining (and indeed, improving on) a 2.34 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

And those are just the individual accolades. As a team, Yale is or is darned near the best in the country in team offense (first, 6.00 goals per game), scoring margin (first, plus-3.25), power-play percentage (10th, 24 percent), and — of course — winning percentage … a perfect 4-0-0.

Whether he’s more Bill Walsh or Phil Jackson is open to debate, but there’s no denying that coach Keith Allain has amassed a formidable arsenal in the belly of the Whale. Like Guy Gadowsky with injuries or Joe Marsh and e-mail, Allain is reticent when it comes to his own formidable beast: the weapons of mass production that call Ingalls Rink home. A well-known Man of Few Words, Allain opened up for us just a little bit in discussing his team’s incendiary start.

“Number one, we’ve got talent,” he said of his team’s offensive capabilities. “We’ve got some good offensive players and our guys practice extremely hard. They compete against each other every single day, and I think that translates to success during games.”

The fifth-year head coach feels confident in saying that his burgeoning superstars aren’t making out like bandits on the score sheet through individual talent alone … but talent helps.

“I think we play a solid team game, and I think that’s one of our strengths: Our guys are very unselfish, they share the puck, we play with speed, and they support each other very, very well on the ice,” he said.

Last year’s Bulldogs claimed the regular-season crown with relative ease, but stumbled mightily against Brown in the second round of the playoffs, costing themselves a shot at a double-title and a playoff repeat. Yale recovered enough to stun North Dakota in the Northeast Regional’s opening game, but fell to eventual champion Boston College in as wild a game as one could imagine in the regional finale.

“I think we’re very similar” to last year’s squad, Allain said. “We returned 12 forwards and seven defensemen from our team last year, and three goaltenders, so you wouldn’t expect there to be a big change in the character of our team.”

One early improvement has been the play of the goaltenders, especially Rondeau. Allain never admitted it, but last year’s Elis never found a dependable netminder despite a stable of four. No one could seem to string together multiple quality outings, and combined with spotty defense, it proved to be their downfall against BC.

“We’ve said all along that we have a lot of confidence in all three goaltenders, and we do,” confirmed Allain, a former Yale goalie himself. “It’s not a concern of ours, and I thought Ryan had a good weekend. Each player competes for ice time every single game, and our goaltenders are no different than anybody else, so as long as he’s good, Ryan’s the right guy to play.”

With a 24-11 goal differential, it would seem that the Blue and White hasn’t engaged in too many close games. Even the results would imply that: 7-4, 7-3, 5-3, 5-1. How will the ‘Dogs handle themselves under higher pressure in a tight contest?

Oh wait. They already have.

“I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe the Dartmouth game was a one-goal game going into the third period, the Quinnipiac game on Saturday was a one-goal game going into the third period, and the Princeton game was a one- or two-goal game going into the third period,” Allain said. “So the ECAC, the league itself, is so darned competitive that we expect most games to be one-goal games going to the third period.”

As for last weekend’s wins over Princeton and Quinnipiac, Allain was happy with the results of course, but admitted that the team needs to start the game with a little bit more intensity: Yale is playing even with its opponents in first-period play, but is a plus-7 in the second frame and plus-6 in the third.

“It’s certainly something we’ve addressed,” Allain said. “I think the guys understand that we have to be better at the drop of the puck, and we’re going to work on that.

“I think we played well in both games this weekend. I thought we could’ve had a better start on Saturday night [against Quinnipiac]. We’ve been getting contributions from lots of different guys, and that’s what’s helped us so far.”

This year’s leadership has picked up right where last year’s led off: as a committee.

“I think our entire senior class” has a strong presence, Allain said. “We’ve got a great group there, and with our captain Jimmy Martin, they’ve done a fantastic job. Mike Matczak is a leader. Denny Kearney has really emerged as a leader. That group really sets the tone for everybody.”

There is still a long, long road ahead of the Bulldogs, and this weekend should be a significant early-season litmus test as Yale takes on Colorado College and Air Force in the Rockies. Would a sweep bolster the Blue to a first-ever first-place position in the polls? Will the offense continue to light foes aflame? And will the defense and goaltending ultimately mature into contender-grade units in their own rights?

“It’s way too early in the season to write the book on this team; we’re four games into a long season, and we like where we’re at right now, but we’re not where we want to be,” Allain stressed.

Where they’re at is No. 3 in the nation. The quiet conductor behind the Bulldogs bench isn’t even sure he likes that position. Too high? Too low? Do the pollsters have it right, with Yale in third?

“Ask me in April,” he said slyly.