Yale’s No. 1 ranking validation for Bulldogs, ECAC Hockey

Haven’t felt like this, my dear, since I can’t remember when; it’s been a long, long time.

Yale, and ECAC Hockey, are No. 1 once more.

It’s been seven and a half years since the conference last boasted the nation’s top-ranked team, and it’s been an uphill struggle for respect for a lot longer than that. But here we are, a third of the way through the 2010-11 campaign, and the ECAC is back on top.

I don’t need to remind anyone that the weekly polls are utterly meaningless. They don’t factor into postseason placements, there is no trophy for the USCHO No. 1 team at season’s end, and no program, coach or player will ever look back at a first-round NCAA exit and say, “It’s OK, we were No. 1 in the poll.”

And yet, this time it means something — at least to those of us in ECAC Hockey, the forgotten fourth child in a family of five. We’ve heard it all: “EZ-AC,” cupcakes, nerds playing a man’s game … so for a nationwide survey of college hockey experts to tab Yale — Yale — as the best collegiate team in the country is immensely satisfying, and in no small measure validating.

This is not a column about how the Bulldogs got to where they are. Those stories have been done, and in reality, they haven’t accomplished anything yet outside their 11 wins. This is a column about how good they really are, and what it means to the program and to the conference for the Elis to finally attain such lofty recognition.

Running toward the light

ECAC Hockey has a long way to go before shaking its underdog tag, but that’s a mark borne of precedent rather than the present.

The last team from the league to hold the top spot in the USCHO poll was Cornell, unsurprisingly, back in 2002-03, after the Big Red clipped Harvard 3-2 in overtime to claim the Whitelaw Cup. The Big Red went on to fly through Minnesota State and edged Boston College in double overtime before falling in the Frozen Four in Buffalo to national runner-up New Hampshire.

In fact, that one poll — on March 25, 2003 — was the only edition in USCHO.com’s 13-plus-season weekly survey to crown an ECAC team as the country’s best.

And yet, the collar that bears the ‘dog tag is beginning to show its age. Yale is not alone in the poll, with three other league mates in this week’s results — Union (No. 13), Rensselaer (No. 15) and Dartmouth (No. 19), and Cornell began the season in the top 20 as well. At one point or another this season, every single team in ECAC Hockey earned a vote. I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before, but I’d bet good money that it’s never happened in a 10-poll period.

“To me, in my estimation, this league has gotten better with every year I’ve been here,” said RPI coach Seth Appert, a recent Yale opponent and former CCHA player and WCHA coach. “There have been a lot of programs in the last five years that have made a strong recommitment to big-time Division I hockey, and I think Yale is certainly one of those.

“They’ve invested in their facilities, they’ve invested in their coaching staff, and they’ve really made great strides not only in talent, but in terms of infrastructure to compete at a high level in Division I. It’s great for the other teams in our league, and I think that — from my perspective — it’s going to be something we’re going to see more of: teams in our league ranked in the top 10, top 15 in the country.”

Western bias

Many on Sunday night and Monday morning expressed doubt that representatives of big-time programs in big-money leagues would be able to put aside their stereotypes and see the Blue & White as the elite team it truly is. That skepticism proved baseless as Yale claimed 68 percent of the 50 top votes, and the results may have been swung significantly by the Bulldogs’ statement win at Colorado College a few weeks back.

“Actually, to be honest with you, they play a game that is very similar to the top WCHA teams,” said CC coach Scott Owens, debunking the myth that all ECAC teams are soft. “They’re up-tempo, they really skate well, they’ve got quality depth at the forward position in particular. They’re a team that’s got basically two first lines, and good third and fourth lines, and they can get after you.”

Owens and his Tigers haven’t run into the likes of North Dakota or Minnesota-Duluth yet this year, and he wasn’t interested in crossing party lines to endorse a non-WCHA program for “team-to-beat” status. That said, the 12th-year leader of the Tigers and former CC goalie knows good hockey when he sees it.

“They skate well, and the other thing is those forwards have the puck a lot, so it takes some pressure off the D corps and the goaltender. They were able to pursue the puck and force the issue a lot. They’ve got tempo, speed, and skill, and they’re a team that we played on the Olympic sheet, and they looked very comfortable on the big surface because of their mobility. We were very impressed.”

Owens also knew a little something about senior goalie Ryan Rondeau, who is having a stellar final season, before Yale was even on the schedule. In the waning light of last year’s defensive/goaltending meltdown in the Northeast Regional against Boston College, Owens believes that Rondeau — who just pitched his second consecutive (and second career) shutout — and his defensive support are finally on the same page.

“I know Rondeau from his junior days, and I think he’s a good Division I goaltender,” Owens said. “I think he’s very capable, but I think that team has also learned from last year, and that everybody’s a year older. The D-corps is older, the forwards are older, and the forwards know how to help out defensively. They’re off to a good start, there’s no doubt. They’re a quality team, they’re off to a good start, they’ve got some good quality wins on the road, and we were impressed.

“I was impressed with their team, and I think they’re going to have themselves a very good season.”

Peer pressure

In an ironic circumstance of the status, the people who most want to see Yale knocked off its newfound pedestal are the same ones who so wholeheartedly rejoice the ECAC’s corresponding elevation. They’re the outsiders who know the Bulldogs best, and while they love the league, they also love the thought of an upset.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that with their performance up to this point, that they’re the No. 1 team in the country,” said Union coach Nate Leaman, whose 13th-ranked Dutchmen were raked by then-No. 2 Yale in a nationally televised Sunday matinee. “They’re very well coached, they have the ability to keep coming at you, and I’m hard pressed to [think of] a better set of forwards.

“I think they deserve to be No. 1, and I think they’re in that conversation [as the best team in the country],” Appert said. “It’s always tough to argue who’s No. 1 unless you play each other. It certainly looks that Duluth’s got a good team out there, it certainly looks that Miami has a really strong team in the CCHA, certainly Boston College and Boston University look to be very strong along with New Hampshire in Hockey East. There are a lot of really good teams, and I think there’s a group of seven or eight that look to be potential No. 1 teams, but I think that Yale deserves to be No. 1 currently because of their record and because of their ability to have won so many games this year with very few blemishes on their record.”

“It’s obviously great for our league,” Leaman said. “Just as important as it is for our league, is what Brown has done the last three weeks. Brown goes into UNH and ties them, goes into BU and ties them, ties Providence [Tuesday] night, and our league is extremely competitive — extremely competitive — and just because we beat up on each other so much, it doesn’t help us in the national picture because things are so tight. So I think it’s great that we have the No. 1 team in the nation, and I believe that our league is one of the best in the nation.”

As far as this year’s Bulldogs versus last year’s, Leaman doesn’t see much of a difference.

“I think they’re just as good as they were last year,” he said. “I think they were a team that certainly belonged in [last year’s] Frozen Four … and when I went out to the Frozen Four last year and watched the hockey, there was no doubt in my mind that they belonged there.”

Across the Hudson, Appert is of a very similar mind.

“I thought they were about this good last year,” Appert said. “I don’t mean that as a slight to them; I think that’s a compliment. I thought they were this kind of team last year. They’re probably better in goal this year — I think Rondeau is probably better than he was a year ago. I think that two years ago, when they first started to establish themselves and had a really good team, they probably weren’t as good as they are now, but they had great goaltending, where last year their goaltending was struggling. Rondeau seems to be establishing himself as a real good Division I goalie. I think if they get quality goaltending, then they’re a better team than they were last year. From a forwards standpoint, and a team standpoint, they’re very, very similar.”

Union hasn’t played any of the other top dozen teams in this week’s poll, but that doesn’t mean Leaman is unaware of what programs like Boston College, Miami, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth bring to the table.

“No disrespect to those programs, but given their results and what they’ve done, it’s hard to imagine a better team in the nation,” the Union coach said.

For once, the rest of the nation seems to agree.