Stiff Tests Loom in a Cruel December

T.S. Eliot wrote: “April is the cruelest month.” For the Harvard women’s hockey team, it might be December.

That’s because the upcoming month will offer a series of challenges in the form of six games in 15 days, five of them against non-conference opponents, with the final clash being the first leg of the Crimson’s annual home-and-home series with arch-nemesis Dartmouth.

Four of those contests come against teams currently ranked in the top 10, and the combined record of its five foes is 45-19-6.

“We are taking it one game at a time,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said. “We try to get better and better every day. The main focus is ourselves.”

The Crimson, ranked a season-high fifth in the national poll released yesterday, can solidify its place as a title contender with an impressive December showing before it takes a 21-day break from competition for the winter holidays.

Harvard ran up a 9-1-0 record through a season-opening stretch of 10 conference games, with its only loss at the hands of rival St. Lawrence on the road. Its run through half of its ECAC slate culminated with a 5-0 win over Princeton on the road on Saturday. Although the opening month offered such quality opponents as the Saints and the Tigers, there were still plenty of games against conference doormats like Union and Quinnipiac to leave fans and coaches doubting whether the Crimson’s gaudy record was a true indicator of its performance to date.

The December gauntlet kicks off this weekend at home with a visit from western powerhouse Minnesota-Duluth. National champions from 2001-2003, with the last trophy coming at the Crimson’s expense in a double-overtime title game, the Bulldogs have slipped in recent years. They still have a bite, however, as showcased in one of the biggest upsets in collegiate women’s hockey this year, a 2-0 victory of previously unbeaten and then-No. 1 Wisconsin on Friday night. Harvard will also tote a four-game losing streak in the rivalry into the Bright Hockey Center on Friday night, including a pair of 6-1 routs at home last season.

Duluth will be the only team from the west that the Crimson will face all season.

“I don’t know if [playing the Bulldogs] is any more significant than playing UNH and Dartmouth,” Stone said. “You don’t have a whole lot of option with the scheduling and you take what you can get.”

Duluth boasts the nation’s deepest and most talented goaltending corps with senior Riita Schaublin and freshman Kim Martin, the young hotshot responsible for Sweden’s stunning elimination of the U.S. in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament back in February and the shutout of the Badgers this weekend.

“Duluth has a couple of Olympians and is right up there in the top 10,” said co-captain Julie Chu after Saturday’s game. “We absolutely need to bring our best game.”

Then it’s on to Storrs, Conn., for a midweek meeting with surprising UConn (9-4-1) before returning home to face Hockey East mainstays New Hampshire (13-2-1) and Providence (5-6-3). UNH in particular has had the Crimson’s number of late, handing it three losses just last season, including its first shutout in over four years and its season-ending defeat in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs in March.

“And then it’s Duluth coming into town, and then it’s UNH and Providence,” Stone said before the season began. “The great thing is that we have some really exciting home games before Christmas.”

The climax of the grueling month will come in the final game, the next chapter in the Harvard-Dartmouth hockey rivalry, traditionally the best-attended and most fiercely-contested set-to in the women’s ranks. A year ago, the Crimson ran away with the December meeting between the two teams, but then dropped the second contest to split the season series.

This year, the return of a trio of Olympians to both rosters has bolstered the two squads, especially on the offensive end, renewing the title implications of the historic pairing. Harvard fans are familiar with Chu, junior Caitlin Cahow, and sophomore Sarah Vaillancourt, but the Big Green’s three stars are equally imposing. Seniors Cherie Piper, Gillian Apps and freshman Sarah Parsons all have national team experience, the latter with Team USA and the former two with Team Canada.

Another factor may be the emergence of freshman netminder Christina Kessler, who shut out Princeton this past weekend.

“She made the saves she needs to make,” Stone said. “You’ll see [Kessler and sophomore Brittany Martin] in net in the games coming up.”

By the time the Crimson ventures to Dartmouth on Dec. 15, it may have soared to the top of the polls, dropped several spots, or remained in the middle of the ranked pack, but it will certainly have a better sense of where its season is headed.

Eliot was describing April in “The Waste Land.” This December, the Crimson will get a taste of the land, a survey of the upper echelon of women’s hockey, and the chance to test its mettle, in a short span, against some of the nation’s best.

—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at jlehman@fas.harvard.edu.

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

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