Yale, Junior Hart Adjust to Changes
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
College hockey teams can have so much turnover year to year, that a team is hardly recognizable. This can be good or bad, depending upon your perspective. For coaches, those kinds of years are the ultimate challenge.
After two years of defensive dominance, Yale knew those days were going end at some point. The graduation of its top three on the blue-line, Rob O'Gara, Mitch Witek and Ryan Obuchowski, left gaping holes to fill.
The Bulldogs had another big loss in the offseason — Nate Repensky, who was slated to be the top returning defenseman, suffered a career-ending injury.
All this meant Yale would enter the year minus its top four from a year ago and with a largely unproven defensive group that was going to be thrown into the fire quickly.
"We are a pretty young team, we have three freshmen and two sophomore D," said Yale defenseman/forward Henry Hart. "It has just been a learning curve for us this year. We are just trying to get better and better each game, which I think we have."
Then of course, there was the other big piece in goaltender Alex Lyon, who left early to sign a pro contract. Lyon was one of the best goalies in the country for those years and had played in 94 of the Bulldogs 98 games in three seasons.
Growing pains were expected and ultimately they happened. After two seasons of allowing less than two goals a game and being the top defensive unit in the country, the Yale defense was ranked 50th at the dawn of the first half allowing 3.50 per game.
"I wouldn't say it has been difficult (getting guys within their roles)," Yale coach Keith Allain said. "It has been a challenge but also exciting. The great thing about college hockey is that you get a new team every year that presents different challenges and different opportunities. We knew what we were getting into getting into the year and I think the guys have been responding well."
As a result of the adjustment, Yale, which has made the NCAAs the last two seasons and six of the eight, is just 7-7-2 at the moment.
The holiday break allowed Yale to regroup and go back to the drawing board to see if the young defensive corps could get better. Ultimately, the extra few weeks of practice time seems to have helped.
Since the break, Yale has been 3-1-1, with wins over Clarkson, Northeastern and Connecticut.
"I think it is a testament to how hard we have worked back there and all the strides we have taken to get better," Hart said. "It is a group effort, though, the forwards have been good in the neutral zone and providing a lot of back-pressure."
Against St. Lawrence on Saturday, a team that has just a lone loss in the ECAC, the Bulldogs showed just how far they had come. In a previous matchup with the Saints, SLU dominated the net front and put up five goals. Over the weekend, the Elis and pushed around SLU and earned a tie that easily could've been a win.
"It starts with the top with our upper-classmen," DiChiara said. "Our coaching staff does a great job with us in practice, really teaching us and preaching habits we need to do on a nightly basis. We have a big stretch of ECAC play coming up and we just have to be ready to go."
Said Allain, "We have spent a lot of time on the defensive end this year. We have worked pretty hard had and shown a lot of improvement but I also think we have a lot of work to do."
With the lack of depth and experience on the blue-line, one injury had the chance to push Yale to the limits. Entering the year it had just seven roster defensemen. This necessitated a move from forward to defense by junior Henry Hart, a move that has seemingly worked out for both player and team.
"We were really hurt by the loss of Repensky who was a really offensive minded defenseman, skilled guy that moved the puck well," Hart said. "We just thought we just thought we could use someone that could move the puck well and do it a little more consistent. I ended up being that guy."
Said Allain, "Henry is a guy I believe is an intelligent player, obviously not a big guy, but I think he has done a great job for us."
Moving from forward to defense is never an easy transition. The responsibilities change and even in a sense the mindset does as well. Positioning is critical for a defender.
"The biggest challenge for me has been on rush defense," said Hart. "You have to get used to guys working gaps. I have also had to go from that attack mentality to defending a 2-on-2."
The move has been a good one for Hart, who struggled to crack the lineup as a forward. In his first two seasons, he hit the ice just 19 times. This season, he has been in the lineup as a defender in each of the last 11 games.
"He knows angles, he understands the pace of a game and he has moved the puck well," Allain said. "As a defenseman I think he has had more time on the puck and I think he has enjoyed that."
In Yale's first five games, it was 1-5-0 giving up four goals per game, since Hart's move it is 6-3-3 and has given up 2.82 goals per game. Hart also has eight assists on the year and leads the team at plus-4.
"I have had a lot of help from the coaching staff and the D-guys, said Hart. "Adam Larkin has been a huge help to me. The move has worked out really well. I am going to hope to stick with it. I have had more success at this level at D than I did at forward. It gives me a chance to use my vision and head out there, with a little more time."