October 26, 2011

From NEHJ: Yale driven by its own goals, not its critics

Senior Brian O'Neill was Yale's leading scorer last season. (photo: Yale Athletics)

It’s a well-known truth that when the NCAA tournament rolls around, just about everyone loves an upset. So, it was only natural that there would be some amount of excitement back in March when Yale — the top overall seed in the 2011 NCAA men’s Division 1 tournament — lost to the third seed in the East regional, Minnesota-Duluth, while playing a stone’s throw from campus at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

The dirty little secret, however, is that more than any other high seed to fall in recent years — whether it was Minnesota against Holy Cross in 2006, Michigan against Air Force in 2009, or Denver against RIT in 2010 — some three-quarters of the college hockey world was dying to see the Bulldogs fail.

When eventual NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth defeated the home-standing Bulldogs one night after going through No. 2 seed Union, many fans and pundits — mostly from points west — got just the result they were hoping for. Not only did the Yale and Union losses give support to the “EZAC” moniker bestowed on the league by fans of other conferences, but Yale’s loss in particular backed up the notion that the team’s superlative regular-season success and high national ranking were products of a weak schedule and that coach Keith Allain’s team was — with apologies to conference and Ivy League rival Princeton — a “paper tiger.”

For some, such pronouncements would be a driving force behind grueling offseason workouts, geared toward coming out the following season and steamrolling the opposition en route to the Frozen Four berth that has been denied the Bulldogs since they began their run to national prominence.

In New Haven, however, it just isn’t so.

It’s not that the team isn’t gearing up for another run that they hope will bring them Ivy League and ECAC Hockey championships, followed by that ever-elusive trip to the Frozen Four. The Bulldogs certainly have those goals. It’s just that none of it has to do with any of the doubters.

“We’re interested in what we believe,” Allain said, “and what we do on a daily basis. I’m really not interested in what other people think about it. It’s nice if they respect our program, and I think that the greatest way to gain respect is to keep on winning, but I think we’re competitive enough internally that the drive is from within, not from anything external.”

Certainly, one of the biggest internal factors that can motivate the Bulldogs in 2011-12 is the opportunity for younger players to step up and fill the voids created by graduation. Yale graduated four of its top seven scorers this past spring in forwards Broc Little, Denny Kearney and Chris Cahill, and top blueliner Jimmy Martin, leaving the Bulldogs with big skates to fill in their high-powered up-tempo offense alongside senior Brian O’Neill (the team’s leading scorer last season) and junior Andrew Miller.

“Obviously,” Allain said, “we’re going to have different personalities. You don’t lose nine players from a 26-man roster and not have personalities change, but I think that at the same time, we’ve done a good job here at creating a culture, so our work ethic and our style of play won’t change.”

By necessity, of course, the names will change, but according to CBS Sports Network analyst Dave Starman, that may not be such a bad thing, as the Bulldogs have players waiting in the wings for breakout performances.

“I think Red Berenson said it best,” Starman said. “It’s very hard to be a great team without great senior leadership, and I think that’s where a kid like (senior defenseman) Kevin Peel, all of a sudden, it falls on his head. He’s an excitable player, he’s a great defenseman, he can hit, he can run a power play, and he’s intense. A lot of the things that Martin did last year that made Yale’s defense so good, a lot of that’s going to fall to Peel this year, and I’m going to be very intrigued to see how he plays it out. I’ve got pretty good confidence that Kevin Peel can be a stud defenseman for that team.”

Meanwhile, in net, the Bulldogs have a whole other issue to deal with, as Ryan Rondeau has graduated after a season that saw him come from virtually nowhere to rank among the national leaders in goals-against average and save percentage. While that leaves a pair of unproven juniors in Jeff Malcolm and Nick Maricic to shoulder the load along with freshman Connor Wilson, Allain — a Worcester, Mass., native and former Yale netminder himself and a former goalie coach with the Capitals, Blues and USA Hockey — is confident that Rondeau’s breakout season last year will serve as an excellent example of what’s possible for someone who works hard to improve himself.

“I think that the lesson that Ryan provided for the younger guys is that he spent three years in our program and worked very, very hard at making himself a better goalie,” Allain said. “He took all the steps he needed to and produced an outstanding season. I think these guys, physically, are able to do that. They just have to learn from what Ryan did.”

Observers around the country have certainly learned a few things from what Yale accomplished last season, ranking the Bulldogs eighth and ninth in the USA Today and U.S. College Hockey Online preseason polls, respectively.

What remains to be seen, however, is how much the Bulldogs have learned, and whether they can teach a few of their own lessons to the doubters.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Elliot Olshansky can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.