DURHAM, N.H.—From the first drop of the puck, freshman Sarah Vaillancourt turned the Olympic-sized ice of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center into her own personal playground.
Posting a hat trick and an assist, Vaillancourt arguably turned in her best performance of the season in Harvard’s 4-1 NCAA semifinals victory over St. Lawrence March 25.
Vaillancourt’s offensive explosion resulted from a combination of three factors.
First, the Saints’ concentrated a good deal of their attention—though no more than what most other teams devote—on tri-captain Nicole Corriero, the nation’s leading goal-scorer with 59 on the season.
This attention, combined with the larger ice space, left the other four players more open.
“It’s a great line,” St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan said. “You spend too much time paying attention to Corriero or [Julie] Chu and Vaillancourt’s there to bury you. She’s a world-class player and she’s out there doing her job. It’s a tremendous line.”
This became particularly critical on special teams. Four of the game’s five goals—including two of Vaillancourt’s—were scored on the man-advantage.
Her first power-play goal on the night came at 8:21 in the second, when Vaillancourt led a surgical man-advantage unit that sliced through the St. Lawrence defense and established a two-goal lead.
The second came later that same period. As the Harvard power play once again dissected the defense with crisp passing, Chu set up camp in front of the crease. When Vaillancourt received the puck, she ripped a shot on the net from the left face-off circle, thinking it would cause a flurry on the net. Instead, she fooled the defense and herself, putting the shot past Moffat for the power-play goal at 16:51.
Without a question, the reduced traffic created by the increased ice size made the ECAC Rookie of the Year more open and more dangerous. When she stepped up her play that Friday night, Vaillancourt simply took control of the game.
“Against Mercyhurst, Nicole [Corriero] was more open so I was working the puck and giving it to Nicole,” Vaillancourt said. “But then you need to adjust. If they take Nicole, then you need to shoot on the net, and that’s what I did today, I shot more on the net.”
Vaillancourt flashed her open-ice abilities midway through the first period during a phase of 4-on-4 hockey. She created a masterful give-and-go play with Corriero and defenseman Lindsay Weaver while on a fast break, ultimately resulting in the first of her three goals on the night.
Vaillancourt didn’t seem to have any trouble adjusting, demonstrating a marked increase in her aggressive play. She posted 14 shots on goal, more than twice that of any other player (Corriero finished with six) and only three shots fewer than the entire St. Lawrence squad could muster (17).
“Fourteen shots on net...that’s quite a performance,” Flanagan said. “She was obviously a force, and that’s basically the story.”
The only other time this season Vaillancourt shot more in a game was Dec. 8 against Connecticut, when she shot 16 times while posting her first and only other collegiate hat trick.
Even when she wasn’t scoring, Vaillancourt was generating the Crimson’s offense in other ways.
Early in the first period, she got within point-blank range of St. Lawrence goalie Jess Moffat, firing two shots on net before drawing a penalty from Saints’ defenseman Laurie Ross at 5:27. Just over a minute later, Corriero converted on the ensuing power play to give Harvard its first goal of the game at 6:29 in the third period.
When glancing at Vaillancourt campaigning down the ice on an offensive drive, it almost seemed like a field commander leading the cavalry into battle—and winning. The real significance of her performance and the numbers she tallied is not simply in the raw skill and ability she displayed, however, but in what the Crimson has been searching for throughout the season: an alternative means of offense to Corriero.
While both Vaillancourt and Chu have accumulated impressive offensive numbers—fifth and seventh nationally in points per game—there is no question that Harvard has all too often had to rely upon Corriero to provide the scoring punch in the offense. Friday night, Vaillancourt made opponents think twice about paying most of their attention to any one of the Crimson’s first line.
“I’m just really happy and proud of my team going in final,” Vaillancourt said. “Great if I scored a hat trick, but I didn’t do it for my stats or anything like that. I just did it for my team.”
—Staff writer John R. Hein can be reached at email@example.com.