Friday, August 14, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Yale

The name of the game in basically any sport is to always be a "hard out." When your opponent can beat you, as long as you're making it as difficult on them as you can, you're doing OK. In college hockey, a good way to measure that is to take a look at how many games you either emerged victorious from, managed a draw, or fell by just a single goal (taking out empty net margins if one prefers). Yale returned to the NCAA tournament on an at-large bid last season for the first time since winning the national championship, and in the process of doing so, played only three games all season in which they lost by more than one goal. That's a "hard out," and they aren't likely to get any easier to drop.

Nickname: Bulldogs
Location: New Haven, CT
Founded: 1701
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 1 (2013)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2015
Last Frozen Four: 2013
Coach: Keith Allain (10th season)
2014-15 Record: 18-10-5 (12-6-4 ECAC, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 55-44-6
First Game: January 22, 1909 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: February 16, 2013 (Troy, NY)
Last YU win: February 14, 2015 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 games: November 13, 2015 (Troy, NY); January 30, 2016 (New Haven, CT)

Key players: F Carson Cooper, sr.; F Cody Learned, sr.; D Ryan Obuchowski, sr.; D Rob O'Gara, sr.; F Stu Wilson, sr.; D Mitch Witek, sr.; F Frankie DiChiara, jr.; F Mike Doherty, jr.; F John Hayden, jr.; G Alex Lyon, jr.; F Ryan Hitchcock, so.; D Adam Larkin, so.; D Nate Repensky, so.; F Ted Hart, fr.; F Joe Snively, fr.

Key losses: D Tommy Fallen, D Matt Killian, F Trent Ruffolo

Previous KYE installments:
Those three games? A 4-0 loss to St. Lawrence at home in early November at the very beginning of the season (Yale's only truly bad loss of the entire season, although Kyle Hayton had a lot to do with it, stopping 32 shots), a 3-1 loss at home to Union in early December (a game which was knotted at zero until two Daniel Ciampini goals at the end of the second period 39 seconds apart), and a 6-4 road loss at Dartmouth in early February.

30 other games were either winners, ties, or games where the Bulldogs were certainly right in it to the bitter end, including the 3-2 overtime loss to a championship game-bound BU squad in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that seemed eerily familiar to the Bulldogs' first round game against Minnesota in 2013 with the exception of the overtime winner going against them.

Yale has long proved the old axiom that defense wins championships, especially since they seem to always have solid offense over the last several campaigns. When they get good defense, they become a very, very good team, and that's just what they had last season - and this coming season - in Dryden Award winner Lyon and the ECAC's Best Defenseman winner in O'Gara. They anchor a defensive stand that has really now eclipsed the Bulldogs' offensive capacity. Yale was the top defensive team in the nation last year at a total team GAA of 1.64. That figure represented college hockey's stingiest defense in over a decade, since Cornell put up an incredible 1.29 team GAA in 2005.

Fallen and Killian were key elements as 1/3 of the blue line group (Fallen appeared in every game, Killian missed just one), but fully half of that corps are now seniors in O'Gara, Obuchowski, and Witek, three of the very best defensemen in the ECAC.

Lyon's 1.62 personal GAA and .939 save percentage were both tops in the nation, and while he didn't play, he was part of Team USA's World Championship team (not a junior team, mind you - essentially the national senior team) that won a bronze medal in the Czech Republic this past May. He backed former UMass-Lowell netminder Connor Hellebuyck, who was arguably the tournament's best goalie.

On offense, the Bulldogs aren't the same kind of team they were a few years ago when they were regularly at the top of the league and won their national championship. They don't have the one or two guys that are overpowering with the puck, guys like Jesse Root and Kenny Agostino who would just bury it so regularly that the rest of the team was, quite frankly, gravy. But Yale last year managed to get good balance, much like the North Country teams, and that perfectly complimented the great defense they tended to get on a night in, night out basis. The team's top eight scorers return from last year, and nine players return who had at least 10 points.

The stars seem to be aligning in New Haven to produce not only one of the best teams in the ECAC, but one of the best teams in the nation as well. There's a bit of untapped potential in Hayden, who arrived highly touted but has had a couple of fairly pedestrian seasons thus far, he could be ready for a breakout year. If that happens, and the Bulldogs get the same offensive balance and defensive dominance that they had last year, anything can happen.

RPI-Yale matchups have been a lot of fun for a number of years, but last year's two games broke the "close game and/or anyone can win" mold a bit. The Bulldogs dominated the Engineers twice last year in a pair of games in which RPI wasn't really even close. The Engineers will require a strong defensive front against Yale if they are to have a shot, and low-scoring contests are going to be the name of the game for any team that wants to beat the Bulldogs - the kind of game where a good bounce is going to be the difference maker.

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