With just one weekend left in the Harvard men’s hockey team’s season, the Crimson is still very much in the thick of things in the ECAC—a position Harvard hasn’t been in since the 2007-2008 season.
“We’re entering the last weekend of the season with an opportunity to get home ice and a bye in the playoffs,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “It’s been a few years since we could say that so there’s definitely a lot at stake. We’re trying to mentally get focused and rested so that we can play our best.”
Weekend matchups against conference opponents St. Lawrence (13-16-3, 9-10-1 ECAC) and Clarkson (15-13-6, 9-7-4), will test the Crimson (8-8-11, 6-5-9) which stands one point behind the Knights of Clarkson for fourth place and a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament.
“We have to earn home ice, we understand that,” Donato said. “If we deserve it, then we’ll earn it this weekend against two good teams that we’re fighting for playoff positioning with. It should be a nice challenge for us.”
Harvard met both teams previously on a back-to-back road trip in November, winning at Clarkson, 3-2, before falling to the Saints, 4-3, the following night. But the Crimson is a different team now than it was then, losing only one ECAC game—last weekend against rival Yale, 7-1—in the last month.
Harvard also holds the all-time NCAA ties record, a curious distinction but a distinction nonetheless. Though the Crimson’s penchant for drawing even has kept it afloat in a closely packed ECAC race—a win is worth two points and a tie is worth one—the team will need at least one victory to secure the coveted first-round bye.
“I think as far as the ties go there are good ties and bad ties,” Donato said. “The last couple we’ve had have been closer to the bad ties department, but we had a good streak there on the road coming back late in the third period. It’s a real strange dynamic, one I’m not entirely sure how to digest.”
One would assume that the profligacy of ties would at the very least indicate consistency on Harvard’s part, but that would be too conventional for such an unconventional season. The Crimson defense gives up goals in spurts and the Harvard attack has dominated the power play—to the tune of a 29.5 percent conversion rate, tops in the NCAA and top-20 all time—but sputtered in traditional five-on-five play.
Even the play in goal, which seemed secure under the steady play of freshman Steve Michalek, has fluctuated of late, as Donato has moved away from giving Michalek complete control and opted for a veritable goalkeeper by committee.
All of these questions and more will look to be answered in this weekend’s games, as the Crimson gears up for the post season.
“Our focus really is just on Friday and Saturday night,” Donato said. “You could argue that these are playoff-like games. It’s important for us to focus on coming out and establishing how we want to play and win hockey games. Over the last several years we’ve played our best hockey traditionally in February so we want to keep that going.”
Harvard is 22-3-2 in February home games under Donato and 22-10-6 in post-Beanpot ECAC games.
Last season’s edition of Harvard hockey made a surprisingly deep run into the ECAC tournament after a slow start to the year. The run, which ended in a tiebreaker in the quarterfinals against Dartmouth, was sparked in part by the play of then-sophomore defenseman Danny Biega and then-junior attacker Alex Killorn. The pair scored five points apiece in the five-game playoff push and return this season, leading the way once again for the Crimson.
“We’re just kind of focusing on what our team does well,” Killorn said. “We’re happy with the position we’ve put ourselves in this season, and are looking to have some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Killorn is currently fourth in the ECAC in goals, with 18 on the season, including three in the past three games. Biega, a co-captain, leads all defensemen in the league with 28 points.
The pair, along with the rest of the Harvard attack, will have to be on their game to get past a formidable pair of goalies. The Clarkson defense is led by the top goaltender in the ECAC, Paul Karpowich. Karpowich leads the conference with 929 saves on the year, 151 more than the netminder in second, St. Lawrence’s Matt Weninger. Karpowich’s .925 save percentage is second in the conference, and the Knights’ defense is only allowing 2.28 goals per game with him between the pipes.
Even though a home playoff game is guaranteed—seeds 5-8 host first round games—this weekend also marks the last home stand for a senior class that has been through a tumultuous four years.
“I’ve got a lot of family members coming down to see us,” senior defenseman Ryan Grimshaw said. “It’s our senior year, and even though we’ll definitely have a home playoff game, it’s important to try and win your last regular season game on your home ice.”
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.