On a weekend when the new hottest show in town—men’s basketball—suffered a devastating defeat, old faithful delivered a pair of clutch victories to clinch home-ice and a bye week in the ECAC playoffs.
The men’s hockey team (10-8-11, 8-5-9 ECAC) wrapped up its first regular season with a winning record since 2007-08, concluding a tumultuous campaign with a third-place conference finish. The 3-2 victory over Clarkson (15-15-6, 9-9-4) and the 4-1 win against St. Lawrence (14-17-3, 10-11-1) propelled the Crimson into the upper third of the ECAC and gave an injured team a much needed bye week to heal up and get ready to compete.
Just as Zack Rosen and Penn were breaking Harvard hearts in Lavietes, junior David Valek was leading the Crimson to victory at Bright Hockey Center. Down 2-1 entering the third period against the Knights, Harvard needed at least a tie to secure a top-four seed and a bye. Valek delivered that and more, scoring two goals in the final frame to give him four for the weekend. Before this weekend he had only scored two goals all season. For his efforts Valek was named Inside College Hockey’s national player of the week.
In order to keep this strange season going, the Crimson will need similar offensive outbursts from an attack that, despite leading the nation in power play efficiency, is in the middle of the pack in overall production in the ECAC.
The favorites entering the playoffs are certainly top-seed No. 7 Union (20-7-7, 14-4-4) and No. 13 Cornell (15-7-7, 12-4-6), but there is a marked drop off thereafter, making a semi-final or even finals appearance—both of which will take place in Atlantic City—a realistic possibility for Harvard.
The quarterfinal draws will be decided this weekend, but the Crimson holds a 7-3-6 record against its possible quarterfinal opponents.
Two of those losses, against Princeton and the Saints, occurred before the winter break—a stretch of play Harvard has traditionally struggled with under current head coach Ted Donato ’91.
In many ways the fate of this team will be decided by the decision-making of Donato. In the past he has made mistakes that I have criticized in these pages. At the same time, many of his moves that at first seemed doomed to failure—such as a switch in goal with just a few games left in the season and the abandoning of a structured offense on the power play—have yielded inspired results, with sophomore Raphael Girard recording a .951 save percentage over the weekend and the power play succeeding like no other in Crimson history.
On a team that has demonstrated its high talent level—eight of the 28 players have been drafted by NHL teams—both the glory of victory and the blame of defeat will fall on the shoulders of the man at the helm.
Harvard boasts eight ECAC tournament championships in its history—the most recent coming in 2006—and 13 regular season championships. It’s a stretch to assume the Crimson can reach glory in the tournament this year (especially considering it’s a combined 0-2-2 against the Big Red and the Dutchmen), but you never know what to expect with this team. This is the same group of players who didn’t lose a conference game for more than a month before falling, 7-1, to rival Yale.
Though the conclusion to this season is certainly still in the balance, next year we might expect the Crimson to make some noise. Harvard is only losing two of its top offensive producers, and while leading scorer Alex Killorn and classmate Eric Kroshus are no slouches, Harvard has a talented core of young players who can be expected to improve and pick up the slack next season.
Junior defender Danny Biega will be leading a class that features bruiser Marshall Everson and speedster Alex Fallstrom. A talented freshman class featuring Colin Blackwell, Patrick McNally and Tommy O’Regan will have a year of experience under its belt, and a new crop of rookies will be welcomed to Cambridge.
But I can guarantee that Donato and company aren’t thinking about next year, at least not yet. For now, their focus rests solely on next weekend’s quarterfinal showdown with a thus-far faceless opponent. There’s no way to accurately predict the future for the Crimson as this up-and-down season has proven. But when you’re conditioned to expect the unexpected, you know one thing for certain: we’ll be watching from the edge of our seats.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at email@example.com.