ON HOCKEY: Crimson Project to Earn Sixth-Seed in ECAC Tourney

THEY'RE DU
Lowell K. Chow

Freshman forward Kevin Du shoots on Union goaltender Kris Mayotte during Harvard's 3-2 win Saturday night.

The Harvard men’s hockey team began the 2003-2004 season, or pre-season I suppose, at the top of both the Coaches’ and the Writers’ ECAC polls. Harvard players cluttered the pre-season All-Conference teams, and the Crimson was picked at No. 6 in the USCHO.com national poll.

Disappointment has followed those great expectations. The team that finished second in the ECAC last year—losing to Cornell in overtime—the same team that made two consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament and lost only three starters from last year’s team, has struggle return to winning form.

Most Harvard hockey followers, this one included, failed to account from the role that Dominic Moore ’03 and Brett Nowak ’03 played. Both were dynamic offensive players, capable of involving linemates, creating their own shot or just plain old finishing.

Moore and Nowak, it seems, had a knack for the net that is prominently lacking from many of this year’s forwards.

There have been positives from this season, though, both for individuals and for the team as a whole. The play of freshman Dylan Reese, limited by back and leg nerve injuries, offers tantalizing promises of a truly aggressive and offensively-minded blue-liner. Prior to injuring his shoulder in the waning moments of a comeback win at Yale, sophomore Charlie Johnson was beginning to become more offensively assertive and had started to find the net. Playing on the same line as Moore a year ago benefited Johnson, and he finished last season with 20 points. Right now his point total stands at nine, but seven of those points have been goals and four have come on the power play.

Not coincidentally, two of Johnson’s goals this season came in one of the Crimson’s biggest wins—a 5-3 victory over nationally-ranked UMass in December. While comeback victories at Union and at Yale were important in the context of Harvard’s struggles this season, the team’s wins over UMass and BU (and its solid performance in two losses to Boston College, the No. 1 team in the land) ended the Crimson’s well-documented reputation of folding in the face of non-conference foes.

This year’s team, for all its struggles, did what last year’s could not: It won big games, though both were home contests at Bright.

In contrast to those “big” wins against UMass, BU, Yale and Union, the Crimson has struggled against a number of less-talented teams. Harvard has been swept in its season series against Brown, Cornell, Rensselaer and Princeton, and stands at 0-1-1 against the Golden Knights of Clarkson with one contest remaining. Those five teams just seem to create problems for Harvard, either through their personnel (Brown with Yann Danis in net) or their playing styles (Clarkson’s physical intimidation or Princeton’s trap).

What then can we expect of the Crimson in the last two weekends of the season? Where will it finish relative to its rivals in the ECAC? It seems unlikely that Harvard could avoid all five of the ECAC teams it has struggled against, but much depends on the seeding in the first round of the playoffs and which teams manage to secure opening round byes.

Here then is one writer’s look at the ECAC stretch drive. Teams are listed in their current league standings, not their projected order of finish. That is represented in the accompanying box.

1. Brown: The ECAC leading Brown Bears travel up to the North Country this weekend. It’s a tough road trip—some might say the toughest in the league—and Brown will be hard pressed to take four points from it.

The following weekend Vermont and Dartmouth skate at Meehan Auditorium, providing Brown’s stifling defense with another chance to shut down Dartmouth’s potent forward combination of Hugh Jessiman and Lee Stempniak.

Brown will go 3-1 over its last four games, with a win at St. Lawrence, a loss at Clarkson and two home wins versus Dartmouth and Vermont.

2. Colgate: Despite its success in January—the Raiders went 7-1-1 to jump near to the top of the ECAC standings—Stan Moore’s team has struggled of late.

Colgate spends this weekend on the road in Union and RPI, before hosting the North Country duo at Starr Rink in the season’s finale.

Colgate will go 2-2 down the stretch, with a win at Union, a loss at RPI, and a home split with a win and a loss verse Clarkson and St. Lawrence, respectively.

T-3. Rensselaer: The ECAC’s hottest team swept Harvard and Brown on their home rinks this weekend, but faces a strong challenge when Cornell and Colgate come to town this weekend. If the Engineers can make it through this weekend—and they will—they should enjoy an easy last weekend at Princeton and Yale.

RPI will continue its winning streak, going 4-0 down the stretch, and will just barely miss the top spot in the ECAC playoffs.

T-3. Cornell: Currently riding a four-game winning streak and tied with the Engineers for third place, Cornell’s toughest remaining game will be played at RPI’s Houston Fieldhouse. It’s the only game I can see the Big Red losing.

Coach Mike Schafer’s team will finish the regular season strong (3-1) and be ready for the playoffs, with wins at Union and in Lynah against St. Lawrence and Clarkson.

5. Dartmouth: The Big Green has an ungodly amount of ties this season, with six already to its name. One of those came against Harvard, and I see that situation repeating itself on the season’s last weekend. And the next night against Brown, Dartmouth’s penalty-heavy hockey (including Jessiman, who is constantly going at it after the whistle has blown) will only help Brown and its top-ranked power play.

Prior to games at Harvard and at Brown, the Big Green hosts Princeton and Yale, neither of which should prove much of a challenge. In total, Dartmouth will finish the season 2-1-1.

6. Yale: The Elis have the ECAC’s best-offense. And the ECAC’s worst defense. In its 7-5 comeback win, Harvard exposed Yale’s almost complete inability to play defense and to stop the Crimson’s swift forwards from building up speed with an aggressive forecheck.

They will go 1-3 down the stretch, losing at Vermont and Dartmouth, managing a victory at the Whale against Union, and dropping the season finale against RPI.

7. Harvard: Trying to take four points in the North Country—as the Crimson did a year ago—is a major challenge. Home games against Dartmouth and Vermont will also be a test.

Clarkson’s aggressive style will pose problems up in Potsdam, but the Crimson should rebound down the road against St. Lawrence. A tie against Dartmouth seems likely, but the Crimson have always seemed to have the Catamounts’ number recently. Overall, Harvard will finish the season 2-1-1.

T-8. Clarkson: The Golden Knights’ physical play, while usually successful against Harvard, could cost them against Brown. I’m thinking it won’t and that the Golden Knights will find a way to solve Yann Danis. After that, there’s the unenviable task to trying to win on the road at Starr and Lynah, something I’m not convinced Clarkson can do. For those counting, that’s 2-2.

T-8. St. Lawrence: The Golden Knights’ neighbors are hard to predict. Some nights there are ties to Wayne State or losses against Lake Superior State. Other times, wins against national powerhouse New Hampshire. That said, I think the Saints will finish 1-3, swept at home by Harvard and Brown, playing competitively at Cornell, and then posting a sold season-ending win over Colgate.

10. Union: Nate Leaman’s squad managed a late tie against Brown and played hard against Harvard, but won’t be able to win more than one of its last four games, that win probably coming in the historical confines of Princeton’s Hobey Baker Rink.

11. Princeton: Len Quesnelle’s Tigers have struggled all year, and they will continue to struggle over the last four games. Its amazing to think that the Crimson has a three-game losing streak to the perennially cellar-dwelling Tigers. A 1-3 finish with a win over Vermont is the best Princeton can expect.

12. Vermont: In his first season holding the reins in Burlington, Kevin Sneddon ’92 has struggled. The Catamounts have managed only four league wins to this point, and little figures to change over the last four given their porous defense. The one possible Vermont win—this Friday against Yale—could easily see one team reach double digits.

ANALYSIS

Those predictions largely continue recent trends—Cornell and RPI’s winning streaks chief among them—and take into consideration the difficulty of winning on the road. Given the level of parity in the ECAC, any team is vulnerable to an upset on any given night and all teams will be clawing for postseason positioning.

The field, which is now clustered with five teams within four points of one another, would look like those in the accompanying box if my predictions were accurate.

ECAC playoffs give the top four finishers a bye, and have teams Nos. 5-8 host teams 9-12. The teams are re-seeded after the opening round, with the top finisher—in this case Brown—hosting the lowest remaining team.

That would leave the Crimson with home ice in the first round of the playoffs and a date with the Dutchmen, and would have had Harvard narrowly avoid Princeton, thankfully.

—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at tmcdonal@fas.harvard.edu.

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