Improvements at defense, goaltending put Yale in good position

Maybe the old westerns were wrong: Whitney Ave. is big enough for the two of ’em.

The Bobcats up the hill at Quinnipiac may be hogging the spotlight, but Yale is nonetheless sitting pretty in second place in ECAC Hockey. The Bulldogs are on a four-game winning streak, are unbeaten in five (4-0-1), and are 9-2-2 since opening the season 2-2-1.

Oh yes, the ‘Dogs are also fifth in the PairWise Rankings with fewer than a dozen regular-season games to play.

“I like my team, and I think we’ve made pretty good progress since the start of the season,” said head coach Keith Allain, who has been no stranger to success in his six-plus years at Yale. “I think we still have the potential to get better as the year goes on. We have 11 games left in the league, so for us, we’re at the halfway mark.”

After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years last spring, Allain is confident that the 2012-13 Elis are ready to make another run at the big dance.

“I think our team game is really good,” he said. “We’re better defensively than we were last year, and our goaltenders are a year older and a year more mature than they were last year. I think that if you play strong defense and have a good transition game, you’re going to get opportunities to score.

“I say our goaltending’s better, but it’s the same guys [seniors Jeff Malcolm and Nick Maricic and sophomore Connor Wilson]. But they’re a year older, they went through last year, they’ve worked to get better. Our D corps, we’ve got three freshmen D who are contributing on a daily basis. Colin Dueck, our senior defenseman, is better than he was last year. Gus Young, our junior defenseman, is better than he was last year. Tommy Fallen, our sophomore defenseman, is better than he was last year. I mean, the one thing we hope to be about in our program is growth, and I think you’re seeing guys who have worked really hard and have gotten better.”

Three years ago, Allain’s Bulldogs stormed the national stage with one of the most prolific offenses of the generation in front of one of the most inconsistent, mismatched goaltending carousels ever seen in the NCAA tournament. Those Bulldogs, led by the likes of Brian O’Neill (45 points), Broc Little (27 goals) and Sean Backman (21 goals) averaged 4.15 goals a game but allowed nearly 3.1.

Malcolm and Maricic were freshmen that season, and neither managed to muster so much as a .890 save percentage. The two older horses in the stable failed to reach 90 percent. The goalie who logged the most game time — Maricic — didn’t even see 800 minutes of action or a second of NCAA ice.

And yet, that team edged North Dakota in the opening round of the national tourney and came within a couple of saves of tipping eventual national champion Boston College in the regional finals, instead losing 9-7 in one of the wildest, most ridiculous games I have ever seen. (My first piece of evidence has always been that Yale used all three goalies that afternoon and still had a fighting chance late in the game.)

That’s a lot said about a distant memory, but there is no way that any coach or player in the building ever forgot what went down on that Sunday evening in Worcester. Least of all, the goalies.

“[Malcolm] has shown moments of greatness each year he’s been here, and each year he’s been here, the moment has been a little bit wider,” Allain said. “What you’re seeing now is a mature senior athlete who’s had positive and negative experiences and brings them all to the table. He’s a guy that his teammates trust completely in goal.
Our new volunteer assistant coach is a guy named Josh Siembida [a former goaltender at North Dakota and Quinnipiac] … and I think he’s done a fantastic job with all three of our goaltenders. Jeff is
starting to carry himself like a confident senior who’s got something that he wants to prove.”

The coach, himself a former Yale goalie, also sees development in his team’s approach and preparation.

“Every team is different. Last year’s team, we could never seem to get any consistency going. We just weren’t able to grasp that,” he said. “I think the reason this year’s team might be better than last year’s is that we’re better as a group defensively, from the goal line out.

“The year before that was a real high-powered offensive team and we felt like we could show up and win every single night. So this team, I think we’ve got the skill that that team had, but I think we’ve got more of a workmanlike, maybe more confrontational approach as well.”

Beyond the headliners — senior Antoine Laganiere (12-11–23) and Malcolm (2.36 goals against average, .922 save percentage) earned league honors this week, and junior Kenny Agostino (9-14–23) is tied for the team lead in scoring — there is another layer of players that feeds the machine as much as anyone.

“There are two forwards that have done a heck of a job for us: senior winger Josh Balch and freshman center Stu Wilson,” Allain said. “They’re the first guys over the board when we need a penalty kill, they’re two of the best skaters on our team, five-on-five they provide energy on the forecheck and they chip in the odd goal. I think their performance — although within the team has not gone unnoticed — maybe outside the team has.

“They’re not big enough to be grinders but they’re certainly a line that can make plays. They can hurt you with speed. They play as hard as they can every shift. They do all those things but grinding might not be a term I would use, if you know what I mean,” Allain said. “High-energy,” he suggested instead.

As long as the scent of past NCAA runs lingers on the breezes blowing in off Long Island Sound, so too will comparisons beg to be made between these Bulldogs and those. Allain is disinclined to remake his teams in the model of recent rosters and insists that no group nor game is ever a finished product.

“I don’t think we’re near our peak,” he said. “Our focus is to work hard at practice every day and be as good as we an be when March rolls around. That’s been our goal since Day One, and that hasn’t changed a bit. There’s definitely been improvement but there’s room for more growth.”

Is his team capable of tearing through the remainder of its ECAC schedule? Is it still, or again, a dominant force in this league?

“I don’t even think that way,” Allain said. “Right now, we’re worried about playing our best game Friday night at Cornell, and that’s God’s honest truth.”

Tuesday night roundup

Union and Harvard locked horns in Schenectady Tuesday night, and — while it’s always close in ECAC Hockey — smart money prevailed in a 4-1 Dutchmen win. The Crimson were right in the fight until the last few minutes, when Matt Wilkins’ second goal of the year put Harvard to bed. (Daniel Carr’s empty-netter, therefore, turned out the lights … or shut the door, or set the alarm system or something. Extended metaphors: Some assembly required.)

The result kept Union firmly in the hunt for a first-round bye but with 13 games played, everyone else in the league has at least one or two games in hand on the Dutchmen. The loss also cemented Harvard’s cellar-dweller status, as the Crimson are a point and two games behind Colgate and St. Lawrence, who are tied for 10th.

Down in Hamden, Conn., the aforementioned Bobcats got more than they bargained for from Nutmeg State (also the Constitution State, or Provisions State, or Land of Steady Habits) foe Connecticut. The Huskies knotted the score at 1-1 late in the second period, but Connor Jones’ goal with barely four minutes left saved QU an embarrassing foray into overtime, or worse. Regardless, UConn’s tenacity could not deny Quinnipiac a 17th straight game without a loss (15-0-2).

The road doesn’t get any easier for the Q-Cats, as road games at Brown, Yale (that one had better sell out!), Cornell and Colgate await. One has to imagine that should QU’s streak hit 21, the team will be looking awfully good for a favorable NCAA seed.

Notes and such

• Dartmouth welcomed a midseason roster addition, giving a locker, jersey and the number 34 to 10-year-old Rygate, Vt., native Caleb Nelson. The founder of “Caleb Dreams of Ice Cream” created a program that benefits hospitalized children at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center; you can read more about the program and the Big Green’s stunning move here.

• Friday’s game between Cornell and Yale at Lynah Rink will be televised nationally on the NBC Sports Network. Dan Parkhurst and Ken Hodge will announce the action; the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. EST.