The December holidays and the New Year are a time to reflect on the past, and consider change for the future.
A remembrance of the year that was, and hope for the coming one.
And while by no means can the No. 6 Harvard women’s hockey team (12-2-1, 9-1-0 ECAC) relax just yet—it still has an away game at Dartmouth tomorrow night—some early reflection gives an indication of where the squad currently stands in the college hockey scene.
And Crimson head coach Katey Stone’s consistent mantra only proves the point: “The main focus is ourselves.”
From the very beginning of the season, Harvard’s performance during December was to be a key time for self-definition, as it would face some of the nation’s best teams. While it will take stellar play in the ECAC to guarantee a postseason berth, games against Minnesota-Duluth, New Hampshire (UNH), and the Big Green were to be more accurate barometers of where the Crimson ranks in the women’s game.
“We’ll know going into Christmas what kind of team we have,” Stone said in late November. “This is the beginning of an exciting stretch.”
“Dartmouth’s going to be tough,” said sophomore forward Jenny Brine following Saturday’s victory over Providence. “I like the way it’s looking. We have a good chance. We’re going to prove ourselves before Christmas break.”
To date, Harvard has done just this: with a tie against the Wildcats, and a pair of wins against the Bulldogs, the Crimson proved itself a clear national title contender.
Harvard is still not a favorite, though. After a loss to UConn last Tuesday and a stiff test looming versus Dartmouth, Harvard was slotted No. 6 by the USCHO.com voters in the most recent national poll.
But simply looking at the results from the past several weeks does not tell the whole story.
To begin with, senior co-captain Julie Chu—a two-time Olympian and the “best player in college hockey,” according to Stone—was out for the game against the Huskies, and still noticeably hurt during the draw versus UNH.
Chu’s is just the most prominent of the various ailments affecting the entire team.
“I would imagine that every team is dealing with injuries,” Stone said on Friday night. “The game has become so physical. Just the speed alone, even if you’re not hit by somebody, if you fall, anything can happen. There’s a greater opportunity for impact in so many ways. Everybody’s battling with that.”
Part of the reason for the Crimson being slightly banged up—its recent busy schedule—is yet another factor to balance. From Dec. 1 to Dec. 9, Harvard played a demanding slate: two games against Duluth, and one each against UConn, UNH, and Providence.
“Five games in nine days...is really tough on all of us,” said sophomore goalie Brittany Martin after shutting out the Friars on Saturday night to end the stretch.
Nevertheless, there are many positives outside of its record that the Crimson can look to this break.
Primarily, and perhaps most importantly, the rotating goalie situation has been anything but a dilemma as both Martin and freshman Christina Kessler have stepped up and taken advantage of their respective chances in net.
While Kessler has not played in enough games to be considered in the national statistical computations, her current 0.98 goals against average and .963 save percentage would be good enough for first in both those categories. Martin, who has arguably had a tougher series of opponents to date, is not far behind in either category: her 1.41 GAA is sixth-best nationally and her .940 save percentage is second overall.
“I’ve never been in this situation when I’ve been at Harvard to have two goaltenders that you could basically flip a coin on a given night and they’re going to give you a solid performance,” Stone said after the Duluth doubleheader. “I feel very appreciative of that.”
“They’re two of the best goalies in college hockey,” she added. “How could you have one on the bench?”
On the offensive end, Harvard boasts the second-best scoring offense in the country (and first among teams from the major conferences). Chu, sophomore Sarah Vaillancourt, and Brine sit 1-2-3 in the nation in points per game by a sizeable margin.
As a team, the power play ranks second to Wisconsin’s in efficiency, converting 29.4 percent of the time.
The Crimson, however, is not simply explosive offense and steady goaltending. Its penalty kill is third in the nation and it leads in scoring margin by over a half a goal per game.
“All season long it’s been about making the team unit work as a whole instead of going for individual stuff,” junior defenseman Caitlin Cahow said. “We have so much firepower on this team, we’re getting points from everyone.”
Harvard will need plenty of points to get by Dartmouth tomorrow. But with a win, the Crimson will finish December 4-1-1 and in first place in the ECAC, poised to continue its yearly tradition of runs deep into the conference and NCAA tournaments.
—Staff writer Gabriel Velez can be reached at email@example.com.