Established defense gives Yale forwards, goalies time to mature in title defense

Can Jesse Root save his best for his senior season at Yale? (photo: Melissa Wade)

How do you sum up the first national championship season in program history — and the first for the league since 1989 — in a few brief lines?

It was an unexpected and serendipitous series of results from arguably the least naturally talented of Yale’s four recent NCAA rosters.

Unlike any of the school’s three previous national tournament qualifiers, the 2012-13 Bulldogs did not win a league title before making the NCAAs. The team didn’t win any regular season championships, either.

In fact, the Bulldogs barely snuck into the big dance at all. Despite dropping 5-0 and 3-0 snoozers in Atlantic City during ECAC semifinal and consolation games, the team hung on to the final at-large bid after a wacky and wild series of league tournament results from around the country.

Perhaps, however, that’s just how coach Keith Allain likes it. Like his 2011 U.S. World Junior team — which captured bronze despite a rough start in the tournament — the 2012-13 Bulldogs rallied strong following the Boardwalk Hall humblings.

“For me, being an old goaltender, I had to learn early on how to respond after a bad goal or two; I let in a few of those,” Allain joked at the league’s preseason media event in Lake Placid. “I think I bring that process to coaching as well.”

The Bulldogs bounced back big time by edging Minnesota in overtime, then shutting down North Dakota in the NCAA West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. The national semifinal saw Yale down Massachusetts-Lowell in OT, then blow past local and league rival Quinnipiac 4-0 in the title tilt.

But enough about last year. What will this year bring? For starters, a new starter: Jeff Malcolm, who brought stability to the Yale goaltending position after years of chaos, has graduated. In his place rises senior Connor Wilson, and behind him freshmen Patrick Spano and Alex Lyon.

Dynamic offensive threats Andrew Miller and Antoine Laganiere have also moved on, along with defensive stalwart Colin Dueck. That said, Allain will have six returning defensemen and loses less than 30 percent of his offensive production. Seniors Kenny Agostino and Jesse Root are primed for their best seasons yet, and with established defenders behind it, the rest of the Yale offense should have time to mature as well.

Not surprisingly, Allain doesn’t see his program’s ascent as having occurred in a vacuum. It is, he said, indicative of the underappreciated strength of the league and its member institutions.

“Not only do we have fine hockey programs, but we have outstanding universities in our league,” he said. “In our league, more than any other league, hockey is the signature sport on our campuses, and that’s an environment that our student-athletes want to play in. Many of them will go on to National Hockey League careers, but many of our graduates will make far more money in their chosen fields outside of hockey because of the education they received at our universities.”

Nothing wrong with accessorizing that diploma with a big jewel-studded ring now, either.

About the Bulldogs

2012-13 overall record: 22-12-3

2012-13 ECAC Hockey record: 12-9-1 (third)

2013-14 predicted finish: First in the coaches’ poll and second in the media poll

Key losses: D Colin Dueck, F Antoine Laganiere, G Jeff Malcolm, F Andrew Miller

Players to watch: F Kenny Agostino, F Jesse Root, D Tommy Fallen, D Ryan Obuchowski, F Stu Wilson

Impact rookies: F Frankie DiChiara, F John Hayden, G Alex Lyon

Why the Bulldogs will finish higher than predicted: The next elite Bulldogs sniper is waiting in the wings, and Connor Wilson is every inch as confident as Jeff Malcolm.

Why the Bulldogs will finish lower than predicted: Yale’s goaltending carousel will wind up once again, and the confidence of the skaters with that regard will be slow to materialize.