Emoticnally disheartened after two consecutive one-goal losses, Harvard's slumping hockey team begins an arduous climb back to serious contention in the ECAC race tonight when it takes on unimpressive Army in the opening round of the two day Boston Garden Christmas Tournament.
In several respects, a victory, and a decisive one, over Army. is mandatory. The Cadets are a much weaker squad than they were last winter, when forwards Dave Merhar and Tony Curran scored nearly 200 points to pace them to a highly successful season, and with both performers gone. Army is only a shadow of its former self.
So it is highly unlikely that the Cadets can pull an upset. no matter how uninspired the Crimson's performance, but a narrow victory by Harvard would be almost meaningless. and quite discouraging, in view of the competition the Crimson will meet on Saturday.
Brown, which dumped Harvard last week in Cambridge, and Clarkson, which has most of the talent back from the squad that made it to the ECAC semifinals last year. battle Friday night, and whoever the victor is, Harvard will face nearly the same assignment in both quality and skating styles.
Both squads play extremely physical hockey, leaning more to a defensive strategy than an explosive offensive style. Each team has the physical size and the necessary goaltending to make the system pay off. And in Harvard, a position-playing, precision-passing squall that is easily rattled by rough play, both Brown and Clarkson will find a perfect opponent upon which to wreak their body-checks.
But neither Brown nor Clarkson is very powerful offensively., or at least not as powerful as Harvard. The Crimson, even when playing poorly, is usually capable of scoring five times a game, and five goals should usually win a hockey contest, unless the defense has an off night.
And that, in a word, has been Harvard's problem this winter. Defensive mistakes gave New Hampshire all three of its goals two weeks ago. two of them on sloppy clearing passes. In the Brown loss. the defense was caught up-ice much too often, and a Bruin team that never should have beaten Harvard did so. 4-3. And two nights ago on a frustrating evening that saw Boston College score four times within ten minutes of the third period, it was the same thing all over again.
Shoddy back-checking allowed the husky Eagle forwards to penetrate Harvard territory almost at will, and a failure of the defense to come to meet the attack until it was too late plunged the Crimson into serious trouble throughout the late stages of the contest. So instead of increasing a two-goal lead during the third period. Harvard found itself desperately trying to keep from losing it, and ultimately, was unsuccessful.
Army, certainly, should cause little trouble. Its narrow escapes over Middlebury and Princeton, an unimpressive victory over AIC. and a 4-0 loss to mediocre Bowdoin are indicative of its scoring power, and even a bad performance on Harvard's part should not give the Cadets the game.
But a bad performance will do little to help the Crimson from the irritating rut into which it has fallen recently, and both Brown and Clarkson are quite capable of beating Harvard unless the Crimson scores early. The Crimson's ECAC stock is becoming somewhat shaky. It needs two big triumphs this weekend.