The collection of Crimson skaters that assembled under the leadership of Coach Billy Cleary ’56 in 1988-1989 has always represented the gold standard for Harvard Hockey. That club cemented its place in the record books as the only group of Crimson icemen to string together 15 wins in a row, win 30 games in a season, and bring home a national championship.
Twenty-eight years later, the word “only” is on the verge of vanishing—perhaps on all three fronts.
Unbeaten since Jan. 17, this year’s Harvard men’s hockey team stands just one win shy of matching the 1989 team’s 15-game winning streak. And with 26 wins already under its belt, the Crimson could hit 30 victories with a perfect run through the Big Dance.
However, in order to share any of these pedestals with the boys of ’89, No. 2 Harvard (26-5-2, 16-4-2 ECAC) first must do something it has accomplished just once since its national championship run: win an NCAA tournament game.
Five years after being crowned the king of college hockey, a new-look Crimson unit topped New Hampshire in its first game of the 1994 NCAA tournament by a convincing 7-1 margin. But after Harvard fell to Lake Superior State in the semifinals one game later, an era came to a close. The Crimson has since missed the tournament 15 times; and when it has cracked the field, it’s suffered seven straight first-round exits.
Current head coach Ted Donato ’91, a sophomore on the 1989 team, has been at the helm for the last four one-and-dones. Donato brought Harvard to the tournament in 2005 and 2006—his first two seasons behind the bench—and returned in 2015 and 2016 after a nine-year absense. But the skipper is still in search of win number one.
“I think it’s really difficult when you look at it,” Donato said. “One game elimination—it’s a challenge, especially when you get different teams that maybe you haven’t seen and you don’t really have a handle on exactly. But it’s the same challenge for everybody.”
In each of the last two seasons, the Crimson entered the tournament as a three-seed up against a two-seed in the opening round. Therefore, Harvard’s losses to Nebraska-Omaha and Boston College by identical 4-1 margins in 2015 and 2016, respectively, weren’t necessarily shocking results. But this year, the Crimson will be fighting off the ghosts of tournaments past as a favorite—a bit of a paradox for the top seed in Providence’s East Regional.
Nonetheless, this battle-tested Harvard team has grown more than accustomed to ending droughts. Over the course of the current campaign, the Crimson has captured its first outright Ivy League title in 11 years, its first regular-season ECAC crown in 23 years, and its first Beanpot in 24 years.
Yet, unless Harvard can bring an end to one more skid—a stretch of about two dozen seasons without an NCAA tournament win—the Crimson’s outstanding 2016-2017 campaign could come to an end Friday evening. And to no one’s surprise, co-captain Devin Tringale said the team would “definitely be disappointed with that outcome.”
“I think by our measures, we would count it as a successful year but a year that wasn’t good enough,” Tringale said. “We’re really proud of all our accomplishments we’ve had so far, but our eyes are on a higher prize right now.”
Much of Harvard’s success to date is owed to veterans such as Tringale. The Crimson carries the highest-scoring senior class in the nation, and junior Merrick Madsen has put together the winningest season for a Harvard netminder in program history.
Having played in two tournament games already, these veterans now have a chance to utilize their experience to contribute beyond the stat sheet. Madsen, a backup when this group first reached the tournament in 2015, addressed how the Crimson’s prior experience in the Dance should aid the team’s cause in Providence.
“Tournament hockey, it’s a whole different atmosphere,” Madsen said. “Just us even going and living the experience that is the tournament, I think it’s good because we can go and know what we’re getting into…. I think it’ll help us settle in a lot more than in past years.”
“I remember my first year, we were all like, ‘This is so cool, This is awesome,’ and all that stuff,” he added. “And it’s great, you can get into that a little bit. But you’ve got to remember you’re there to win games too. The fact that this is our third year in a row, I think a lot of the guys will be like, ‘We’re just back at it.’”
Senior Sean Malone shared a similar opinion, saying that whereas Harvard played “timid” in 2015 against UNO—a team it hadn’t seen before—the Crimson this time expects to stick with exactly what’s gotten it to the tournament in the first place.
That sounds like good news for Harvard, considering its timid play two years ago may have been what led to the Crimson falling behind UNO early—a mistake repeated against BC in 2016, but one which co-captain Alexander Kerfoot hopes to avoid Friday.
“It’s really hard in one-and-done situations when you’re chasing games, so we’re going to look to get the first goal and play from ahead,” Kerfoot said.
Kerfoot and company will aim to do that against Providence, a four-seed playing less than three miles away from their home rink.
“We love being the underdog,’’ Friars goalie Hayden Hawkey told The Providence Journal. “Everyone is kind of sleeping on us right now. That’s big for us. We know what we’ve got in the room.”
“They can think whatever they want,” Kerfoot responded. “We’re fine playing the underdog [or] the favorite. We’re just going in there and trying to treat it like any other hockey game. And we’re going to be ready for it.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.