Yale’s tournament defense demonstrates that sometimes statistics can lie

The Yale defense is a lesson in how statistics can lie.

Entering Saturday’s national championship game against Quinnipiac, Yale was 27th in the country defensively, allowing more than 2.50 goals per game. In the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs kept opponents to 1.25 goals per game.

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“People always say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said second-year Yale associate head coach, Red Gendron, who works with the Yale defense. “We play a pretty good team game and that’s a credit to our head coach, Keith Allain, and that’s really bottom line. That’s why we won.”

The Bulldogs have had a defense-first philosophy all season but didn’t always execute that mantra consistently. Beginning with a 6-2 loss to Quinnipiac Feb. 2, Yale lost five games in a row and gave up four or more goals in four of those contests.

“First of all, defensive play is collective,” Gendron said. “When we were struggling at the midpoint of the season, I don’t think any of our players were playing particularly well. The defensemen were making mistakes and the forwards were making mistakes on coverage assignments and things like that. It was a general problem for our team.

“We had two and three freshmen [defensemen] in the lineup all year long and it takes some time for those guys to gel and develop and obviously they did. I think really when things go bad it’s a collective thing.”

Feb. 23 is when the Bulldogs broke that streak with a 4-3 win over Princeton and then a week later beat Cornell by the same score. Then came three games in which the Bulldogs allowed two total goals.

And then came the two games in which the Bulldogs were shut out in the ECAC Hockey tournament, outscored 8-0 collectively by Union and Quinnipiac.

“Coach [Allain] said it was sort of a throwaway weekend,” Gendron said. “We had played extraordinarily well for five games: the last three games of the regular season and then the [ECAC playoff] series against St. Lawrence. We had great play defensively during that time and then all of a sudden we didn’t play well defensively and we didn’t do anything offensively.

“No goals in two games is pretty poor effort in offense. We basically said, ‘Hey, this wasn’t us.’ Then we found ourselves in the tournament.”

It was a matter of time and timing that helped the Bulldogs find themselves, so to speak, in the tournament. Gendron said that the Bulldogs needed to learn when they needed to take away an opponent’s time.

“Speaking of time, it takes time to do that instinctively,” Gendron said. “Quite often, coaches will say, ‘What were you thinking out there?’ When you’re thinking when you’re playing hockey, you’re a step behind. It has to be instinctive. You have to see things, recognize patterns, and be able to anticipate and be on the move before it’s obvious to everybody else. That takes time for players to figure out, too, and certainly by the NCAA tournament, we had it figured.”

The message of the coaching staff — that defensive play is collective — is something the Bulldogs were able to demonstrate Saturday.

“Coach [Allain] preaches that when we have the puck, all five guys are on offense and when they have the puck, all five guys are on defense,” freshman defenseman Rob O’Gara said. “Defense starts in the offensive zone. When our forecheck was going like it was this weekend, it really stops the opposing team from getting out of the zone before they get started.”

“We’re firm believers in defense leading to offense,” junior forward Kenny Agostino said, “and when you’re a high-offensive transition hockey team like we are, your good defensive plays will lead to transitions and ultimately we have the offensive firepower to capitalize on those transitions.

“Defense wins championships; you hear that all the time. We knew if we were strong and defensively sound, we’d get opportunities and we’d execute on them tonight.”

“The game of hockey is pretty simple,” Gendron said. “Most attacks go nowhere. The quicker you retrieve the puck, the more time you have it, the odds are that you can generate more offensively.

“It’s a statistical problem as much as anything else.”

Saturday, the numbers didn’t lie. A 4-0 win over the top seed in the country is no statistical problem at all.