Following two commanding wins last weekend, the No. 8 Harvard women’s ice hockey team looks to sustain its momentum entering the ECAC Tournament and position itself for its first NCAA Tournament bid since the 2009-10 season.
The No. 2 seed in the conference, the Crimson (20-8-1, 17-4-1 ECAC) will square off against No. 7 seed Princeton (12-13-4, 10-10-2) in a best-of-three ECAC quarterfinal, starting Friday at 4 p.m. at the Bright Hockey Center. In their most recent meeting, a home matchup on Feb. 4, Harvard routed the Tigers, 10-1, but Princeton was also responsible for one of the Crimson’s four losses in conference play, a 3-0 defeat at Baker Rink on Jan. 6.
“I think, for most of us, the 3-0 loss is still lingering because that was a team we feel like we should not have lost to,” junior forward Jillian Dempsey said. “We didn’t come ready to play and expected things to happen just because we showed up, and we kind of got embarrassed.”
Harvard finished the regular season last weekend with decisive home wins over Brown and Yale, defeating the Bears, 5-1, on Friday and the Bulldogs, 4-0, on Saturday’s Senior Night.
“We were firing on all cylinders [last weekend],” junior defender Josephine Pucci said. “We never stopped playing our game all over the ice, and if we keep that mentality, we’ll be able to play the way we’re capable of [playing] no matter what the score is.”
At eighth and 12th in the conference, respectively, neither Brown nor Yale presented a level of competition equal to that which the Crimson will encounter during the playoffs.
“Any time you can perform well, it shows you some things you can work on and some things you do well,” Pucci said. “[The wins] were definitely a positive, but this is a totally clean sheet. We have to take everything we learned to the games this weekend.”
With a strong showing in the ECAC Tournament, Harvard will be in line to earn a bid to the eight-team NCAA Tournament, either by winning the conference tournament or obtaining one of five at-large slots. But at No. 8 in the country, its position is by no means secure, and an early exit at the hands of the Tigers could leave it on the outside looking in.
“Every game is crucial,” Pucci said. “Looking past each round is not going to do anything. Right now, our focus is on winning the quarterfinal, and then hopefully after that we can focus on winning the semis.”
Spurring the Crimson on in its pursuit of postseason glory are its memories of coming up short last season. Near the end of the 2010-11 season, Harvard was similarly on the bubble, needing an impressive performance in the ECAC Tournament to advance to the NCAAs. But in the 2011 ECAC semifinal, the Crimson fell to Dartmouth, 4-1, at Bright Hockey Center. Ultimately, the Big Green received an at-large bid to the NCAAs, while Harvard watched the tournament from home.
“You only get so many times to put the jersey on,” Dempsey said. “We didn’t know that game [against Dartmouth] we played was our last game. We look at it as a one-game season from here on out.”
Also providing a morale boost to the Crimson was the announcement earlier this week that both Dempsey and Pucci were among the 30 nominees for the 2012 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given annually to the top women’s ice hockey player in NCAA Division I. Dempsey is the team’s leading scorer with 42 points, including a five-goal performance in the 10-1 victory against Princeton, and Pucci is the leading defenseman on a unit that has allowed 1.79 goals per game, the seventh-lowest in the country.
“It’s an incredibly humbling honor to be nominated and even in the same pool as those other kids,” Dempsey said. “They’re all talented and work hard, so it’s really great we were selected for that.”
Individual accolades aside, the Crimson’s attention is still firmly fixed on its matchup with the Tigers, whose only realistic shot at extending their season beyond the ECACs lies in winning the tournament. The quarterfinal series continues on Saturday, with Game 2 scheduled for 3 p.m. and Game 3, if necessary, slated for 3 p.m. Sunday.
“The bottom line is that it’s playoff hockey, and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past,” Dempsey said. “Every opponent brings their best when they play Harvard.”