JONNIE ON THE SPOT: Road Wins Are Always Hard

A PERFECT SAINT
Timothy M. Mcdonald

Junior forward Brendan Bernakevitch and St. Lawrence forward Rich Peverly battle for a puck during a faceoff Saturday night.

CANTON, N.Y.—Look up “road game” in your desktop hockey dictionary, and you’ll find two distinct definitions.

The first is pretty basic: “A contest played in the home venue of the opposing team.”

Meanwhile, the second entry in your copy of the Unabridged Puck Scrolls is slightly more nuanced. Harvard junior Noah Welch described it almost poetically after last Wednesday’s practice: “Doesn’t have to be pretty. Just get in, get it done, and get the hell out.”

Moving, isn’t it? We’ll pause a minute as you wipe away that tear.

In all seriousness, though, any hockey fan knows precisely what Welch means. To win on the road, you often have to control puck possession, play responsible defense, win the special teams battle, and get solid goaltending.

Judging by those criteria, the Crimson’s 2-1 victory at Clarkson on Friday night was a hockey purist’s dream. Harvard outshot (40-27) and outchanced the Golden Knights, had a 38-36 edge in faceoffs, won key draws down the stretch, blocked 11 shots, scored a power-play goal and held Clarkson to 0-for-6 on its power play.

“We did a very, very good job of playing a road game,” said goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, who pulled his weight with a virtually mistake-free, 26-save performance.

The Crimson wasn’t quite as effective the next night. It was outshot (40-38) and outchanced by St. Lawrence, but demonstrated requisite intestinal fortitude by blocking 16 shots. Harvard had costly defensive lapses and took a couple foolish penalties, but a fourth-liner just back from a season-long injury (Kenny Turano) had two points, and Tyler Kolarik (two goals) was a difference-maker.

Both goaltenders allowed an iffy transition goal from high in the right circle. Both teams had a power-play goal.

If this sounds like an even game, that’s because it was. The teams tied, 3-3.

Was it another perfect road game? No. But on a North Country weekend in which travel partner Brown was swept—knocking it from first place in the league—three points were acceptable, even though a tighter game on Saturday would’ve given the Crimson four.

“This isn’t a moral victory,” admitted Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni, “but I’m very proud of the way our guys played this weekend.”

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

It is a matter of objective fact that the best teams in Hockey East have had better non-conference records and greater NCAA tournament success in recent years than their counterparts in the ECAC.

But there is also little doubt that the travel schedule that ECAC teams endure, weekend to weekend, far surpasses the rigors found in Hockey East, where the close proximity of schools and mid-week games make for fewer missed classes and overnight stays.

Never does this contrast become clearer for the Crimson than during its annual trip to the North Country, a seven-hour sojourn that takes the team’s 22-member travel squad from the heart of Greater Boston to within a stone’s throw of the St. Lawrence River.

These are two entirely different places in every possible way. In Cambridge, drivers become angry when the Ford Focus in front of them tries to turn left onto JFK during rush hour. In the North Country, drivers seem surprisingly patient while stuck behind an Amish buggy in the no-passing zone of a winding, two-lane road.

In Cambridge, you eat at pizzerias where the guy behind the counter asks what you want by yelling, “Who’s-a-next!” In the North Country, the big-haired waitress who takes your order snaps her gum and asks, “And what can I getchas ta eat?”

Even after you’re through with the culture shock, you still have to play two hockey games in packed, partisan rinks. It’s no wonder Harvard has swept Clarkson and St. Lawrence on the road exactly once since the 1992-1993 season.

“Everyone knows this is not an easy road trip,” Mazzoleni said.

And, given the way the ECAC standings look, it’s probably a good thing the Crimson endured it when it did. Harvard figures to be playing more important road games quite soon.

The Crimson has been mathematically eliminated from receiving one of the four first-round byes, meaning it will need to win two best-of-three series—at least one of which will be on the road—in order to reach the ECAC semifinals for the fourth straight year.

That will not be easy. If Harvard gets past its first-round opponent—and that is a big if, given how well the league’s bottom teams have played in recent weeks—it will play its next series at one of five schools: Colgate, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth or Rensselaer.

The Crimson is 1-3-1 at those road sites this season, the lone win coming at Colgate—the unlikeliest quarterfinal opponent of the bunch.

CLEAN SLATE

This is the time of year when folks can see how benevolent ECAC hockey is in comparison to, say, Ivy League basketball.

You’re an Ivy hoops team with five league losses? Kiss your postseason hopes goodbye.

You’re a winless ECAC hockey team? Come on in. We’ve got room for all 12.

Say what you will about what that does to the competitiveness of the ECAC regular season for teams not in the running for an at-large NCAA bid, but this much is clear: Right now, a dozen teams know that if they win the tournament, they’ll play in the NCAAs.

One of them is Harvard, whose regular season has been a disappointment in virtually every way possible. But, as of one week from now, that won’t matter. Everyone on the team—every coach, every player—will gladly wipe clean what has become a cluttered blackboard.

Left behind will be the lessons of all that went wrong and experiences such as the one they had in the North Country this weekend. They played excellent hockey for one-and-a-half games and got pretty much what they deserved: a win and a tie.

If the Crimson replicated this weekend’s effort during a road playoff series in two weeks, would it win? Tough to say. If the opponent is Cornell, and the venue is Lynah Rink, probably not.

Could Harvard beat the Big Red, or another top-four team, in a road series? Sure. But the Crimson would need to play two perfect games to do it, and in order for that to happen, it must improve over the next two weeks.

There are still gaps in Harvard’s game—gaps in all three zones that may be exposed in this weekend’s home series against Vermont and Dartmouth, gaps that may be exploited during the first round of the playoffs.

But the talent is there. We never doubted that. And now, with the Crimson riding a three-game unbeaten streak, there is hope that the North Country trip won’t prove to be Harvard’s final road games of the season—in both senses of the term.

—Staff writer Jon P. Morosi can be reached at morosi@fas.harvard.edu.

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