Three weeks removed from a 3-1 win over Colgate, the Harvard men’s hockey team returns to the ice this afternoon, skating against the No. 13 Brown Bears in Meehan Auditorium.
The Crimson (8-9-2, 6-7-1 ECAC) will resume play after a long exam period break and at the same time revisit college hockey’s oldest rivalry; today’s game is the 140th meeting between the two Ivy rivals.
Harvard and Brown (11-5-4, 9-3-1) opened the season against one another, with the Bears skating to a 2-0 win at Bright Hockey Center. Since that game, the teams have been on divergent paths—Brown, with Hobey Baker candidate and national goaltending leader Yann Danis, has maintained a national ranking and stands in the top spot in the ECAC while the Crimson has proved pre-season prognosticators foolish and plummeted out of the national rankings. Harvard currently sits in ninth place in league play.
And after falling into that unenviable position, perhaps having three weeks between games was a boon for the Crimson. With all the talk of possible rink rust from the long layoff, Harvard has struggled consistently over the season’s first 19 games and may well have benefited from the time off. Crimson coach Mark Mazzoleni was quick to emphasize that his players still conducted voluntary practices and used the weight-rooms together, maintaining their conditioning over the three-week stretch.
But without matchups against rival teams, there is only so much a practice can do to simulate game-like atmosphere and intensity.
“I think guys are rejuvenated and re-energized to come back to the rink and play some games,” said captain Kenny Smith. “I think it’s really going to help our playoff run.”
Also sure to help is the return to the lineup of senior defenseman Dave McCulloch, who has missed the last 13 games with a high ankle sprain. McCulloch’s return will lighten the load on a defense that has struggled with his absence, as well as that of freshman Dylan Reese. And while senior forward Kenny Turano remains out of the lineup, Harvard’s forward lines look to remain the same as those employed before exams began. The Crimson’s top line, and its most consistent scoring threat, will again feature assistant captain Tyler Kolarik, senior Tim Pettit, and junior center Tom Cavanagh.
The ‘T’ line, as some have chosen to call it, will be sorely tested by the Bears’ suffocating defense, a defense that begins and ends with Danis. The senior netminder has precipitously improved every season in Providence, and he currently leads the ECAC, and the nation, with a .949 save percentage and is a close second with a 1.57 goals against average. Anchored by Danis, Brown boasts the ECAC’s second best team defense and its top-rated penalty kill—a unit performing at an unheard of 93.9 percent clip.
“[Brown] plays tenacious defense,” Mazzoleni said. “They have a great penalty kill, which is centered around Yann Danis…they play a very strong defensive type game. They like it to be a half-court game, to slow it down.”
“And they’re very good on their first power play,” he added.
Therein lies the main difference between this year and last for the Bears. A year ago, Brown advanced to the semi-finals of the ECAC Tournament in Albany, largely on the strength of Danis’s goaltending and a suffocating PK. To that combination, they have added a solid offense and a deadly effective power play.
The Bears’ first power play relies on two players, freshman forward Brian Ihnacak and junior forward Les Haggett. Ihnacak and Haggett have tallied 20 and 17 points, respectively, and are a large part of the reason that the team’s top power play unit is converting on 28.2 percent of its opportunities. And that effectiveness is something Harvard is already wary of.
“Danis is going to play well, like he always does,” Smith said. “[Brown] is going to be opportunistic—any mistakes we make they’re going to pounce on and try to take an early lead.”
Both Mazzoleni and Smith maintained that the Crimson is well familiar with the Bears and their defensive style of hockey. And both are somewhat concerned with Brown’s ability to grab an early lead and then trap and clear, cutting down the ice and clogging their defensive zone in an effort to preserve the lead.
“We’re going to come out and play really aggressive against them,” Smith said. “Our goal has to be to jump out to an early lead.”
But, he added, “The way our forwards play, it’s dangerous trying to sit on a lead.”
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Carrie H. Petri can be reached at email@example.com.