A little less than a year ago, the Harvard women’s hockey team won a pivotal playoff game at the Whittemore Center on the campus of the University of New Hampshire on its way to the NCAA Championship game.
Tonight, it hopes to repeat that formula.
In 2005, the Crimson advanced to the Frozen Four, where it knocked off St. Lawrence in the national semifinals before bowing to Minnesota, 4-3, in the title game. This time around, Harvard (18-12-4) travels to the Durham, N.H. arena of the top-seeded Wildcats (32-2-1) for a home-site quarterfinal showdown with a ticket to the season’s final weekend in Minneapolis on the line. The puck drops at 7 p.m.
”A lot of people felt like we wouldn’t be here now, so I’m proud of these kids,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said. “And we have an opportunity [tonight] to put ourselves in a position to get to the Frozen Four. But we have to get through a very, very tough New Hampshire team.”
The Crimson meets No. 1 UNH for the third time this year, after the Wildcats swept a home-and-home series during the regular season. New Hampshire dealt Harvard its first shutout since 2001 in a 3-0 win in December, then downed the Crimson by a final count of 5-1 the following month. The scores, however, are deceiving; Harvard gave the Wildcats a much harder time in the second encounter, even on the road.
“We may see them again,” New Hampshire coach Brian McCloskey remarked after that game. “They’re an excellent team. I expect that. Katey’s teams always come on strong in the second half.”
McCloskey’s words in January have proved prophetic. The Crimson is playing by far its best hockey of the season, having won five of its last six games, all but one against Top 10 teams, and fresh off a barn-storming run through the ECAC Tournament. With its third straight tourney trophy, Harvard clinched an automatic bid into the post-season, and now stands two victories away for its fourth consecutive NCAA final.
But first, the Crimson must surpass a UNH team that boasts the highest-flying offense in the land—averaging 4.89 goals per contest—and has not lost since November.
New Hampshire’s fearsome top line features the third, fourth, and seventh-leading per game scorers in the nation in Jennifer Hitchcock, Sadie Wright-Ward, and Sam Faber, respectively. These explosive talents also catapult the Wildcats’ top-ranked power play, which converts at an amazing 30.1 percent clip. Harvard will be well served to stay out of the penalty box, and when it is whistled, will rely on the speed of its penalty kill unit to prevent New Hampshire from cycling the puck around its wide, Olympic-sized rink.
“The first thing is we need to neutralize their speed,” Stone said. “They have some pretty quick forwards so we’ve adjusted our D zone to try to neutralize their speed a little bit. No rocket science, just try to stay out of the penalty box and play the game 5-on-5.”
Meanwhile, the Crimson’s top two lines are operating with the most cohesion and ingenuity that they have shown all year. The first line of senior Jennifer Raimondi, junior Katie Johnston, and freshman Sarah Wilson finished with a combined eight points in Sunday’s 4-3 win over Brown. The day before, junior second-liners Liza Solley and Jennifer Sifers notched all three of the team’s goals in a stunning semifinal upset of St. Lawrence.
The goaltending matchup is also a dandy. Senior netminder Ali Boe, in recent weeks, has displayed an impressive stubbornness to let her career come to a close. Excluding the frenetic first period against the Bears, Boe has allowed a mere four goals in her last 323 minutes and 59 seconds of action. Her counterpart, Wildcats junior Melissa Bourdon, leads the nation with a 1.06 goals against average.
“We’re going to get what we always get from Ali Boe, which is consistency,” Stone said. “I don’t really know that much about Bourdon. I don’t think she’s had a lot of pressure on her lately. But...Boe’s been in this position before and she’ll do everything she can and put her team in a position to win.”
Although New Hampshire should benefit from having home ice, it suffers from a decided deficit in postseason experience. The Wildcats are making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance tonight, while all of the upperclassmen on the Harvard roster have had at least one taste of women’s hockey’s Big Dance.
“The older kids certainly have the experience of playing in these types of games and the younger kids have done a good job in the playoff setting thus far,” Stone said. “We have nothing to lose, and there’s no pressure on us, so we’re going to take advantage of every opportunity we can.”
—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at email@example.com.