Steady Defense Anchors No. 1 W. Hockey

Though the No. 1 Harvard women’s hockey team squares off against No. 3 Dartmouth this Friday, the Crimson is the squad bringing the tenacious D to the Big Green’s Thompson Arena Friday night.

After suffering key losses to the defensive core of last year’s national runner-up team, Harvard has talked all year about the importance of incorporating the newer players into key role players on the defensive end this season.

“We are often reminded in the locker room that ‘offense wins games; defense wins championships,’” freshman Caitlin Cahow said. “That is the attitude that we try to incorporate into our game plan because that is where we want to be headed at this point in the season.”

With the Crimson’s four-game shutout streak to open the season and a 1.23 goals against average to date, it’s fair to say the team has backed up its words with its play.

Last year’s defense had two solid veterans in Jamie Hagerman ’03 and Pamela Van Reesema ’03. This year, with injuries to sophomore Jaclyn Pituschka and freshman Lindsay Weaver—both of whom have seen considerable playing time this year—and a number of other young faces seeing increasingly more action, nothing was certain on defense.

“We’ve really had to focus on the little things this year—clearing rebounds, effectively tying up opponents in front of the net, having outlet passes and supporting the puck, pinning the puck carrier against the boards, and making quick, effective passes,” junior Ashley Banfield said.

Coming into this season, the defense had two strong anchors in co-captain and Olympian Angela Ruggiero and Banfield, but was still in questionable concerning its depth.

Additionally, the graduation of a strong class of offensive threats meant many of Harvard’s games this year would be much closer—requiring the defense to step up its play.

“We know we’re not going to be winning games 10-0,” Banfield said. “We need to shut teams down and that’s the bottom line. Solid defense isn’t glorious like scoring a game-winning goal, but it’s what allows that game-winning goal to be scored and that’s the mentality that our entire team buys into.”

The season began on a very optimistic note as Harvard shut down Union, Providence and Niagara, not allowing a goal in 250 minutes of action.

“Not only was it a source of confidence,” Banfield said. “But also a source of pride.”

The biggest snag of the season to date came in Harvard’s only two losses, reflecting the key role that the unit plays for Harvard.

In the Crimson’s tightly contested 2-1 loss to Dartmouth, a fluke goal coming off of a mishandled puck started the trouble.

Following the break in play for exam period, Harvard’s defense came out slow against Princeton and gave up a season high six goals—three more then in any other contest this year. Adding to the trouble was Pitushka’s continued absence due to injury, as well as a concussion to Weaver.

Cahow stepped into this void and the defense got right back on track.

Over the next five games, the Crimson gave up a meager average of one goal for each contest, winning four of those contests decisively. The one hiccup came against Colgate when Boe and the Harvard defensemen gave up three goals and had to rely on a Ruggiero score with just over two minutes left to play.

Now that Weaver is back in the lineup and Pitushka is practicing with the team, Cahow’s play will become a part of the all-around depth that makes Harvard the number one ranked team in the country.

Although her offensive prowess has made past coaches feel as if her natural role should be as a forward, Cahow has always preferred to shut down opponents offenses.

“I have realized with this latest switch to defense how much more comfortable I am with the conceptual aspects of the defensive game,” Cahow said.

Like co-captain Lauren McAuliffe, both Cahow and Weaver’s earlier hockey careers involved playing against boys. Both have still felt a bit of an adjustment in playing collegiate women’s hockey, however.

“My learning curve is huge right now because I get to watch and play with the some of the best defensemen out there as far as I am concerned,” Cahow said.

And then there is Ruggiero—a blueliner who plays so many minutes that St. Lawrence coach Paul Flangan joked about her playing the entirety of Harvard’s overtime victory over the Saints this past Friday night. One cannot deny the important role of having a player like Ruggiero on the team to teach the freshmen the game of collegiate women’s hockey.

“[Ruggiero] is the best defenseman in the world,” Banfield said. “So it’s easy to watch her and then try and imitate what she does, both on and off the ice.”

In a typical game, Ruggiero stays on the ice shift after shift while the other four players switch one at a time. But a number of penalties—she leads the team with 53 this season—has kept her off the ice at key moments during games this season, demanding solid depth behind her for the Crimson to make its run for the national championship.

In the next two weeks, Harvard will travel to play Dartmouth and then face off against Princeton at home, hoping to shut down these two ECAC rivals and avenge its only season losses.

“At defense our goals stay the same,” Cahow said. “Protect our goaltenders, and support our forwards with good break out passes and aggressive play in the offensive zone.”

The Crimson’s prowess on either end of the ice shows on paper—Harvard leads the nation in scoring offense (4.60) and scoring defense (1.24), boasting the highest scoring margin in the league (3.36). This balance has been vital to the success of the team and its rise to No. 1 in the nation.

—Staff writer Gabriel M. Velez can be reached at gmvelez@fas.harvard.edu.

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