UPDATED: December 14, 2016, at 2:30 a.m.
There once was a time when Harvard ruled the ECAC.
As soon as the men’s hockey conference dropped to 12 teams in 1984, Crimson coronations became standard practice. In the first 10 seasons under the new structure, Harvard captured as many as seven regular season championships.
By the time the last was secured in 1994, success had evolved into such normality that one Crimson skater was quoted after the championship-clincher as saying, “Ah, whatever.”
Of course, this quote may be taken out of context. After all, I wasn’t there that night at the Bright Hockey Center. In fact, much like the vast majority of today’s Harvard roster, I wasn’t alive to see the Crimson shrug off its last regular season title.
I have, however, seen the shrugging persist—just not the good kind. In the two decades following that 1994 ’chip, Harvard seesawed between contender and pretender, trending more towards the latter. The Crimson put together just seven winning seasons in those 20 years, while nine different schools—none of them Harvard—took turns as league champs.
These days have a different feel to them. The Crimson’s been back in contender mode for the last three seasons, and right now, the polls are calling Harvard (8-2-1, 4-1-1 ECAC) the fourth best team in the country.
Unfamiliar waters, these are not. Two years ago, the Crimson skated into the winter layover with identical resume bullet points: a No. 4 ranking and just one loss in conference play. But as injuries piled up and the schedule grew increasingly compact, the team crumbled. A postseason run would eventually salvage the season, but Harvard dropped all the way from first place in January to sixth by March.
A year later, the Crimson avoided a second-half collapse but could not eclipse an unsurpassable frontrunner. Quinnipiac led the ECAC from start to finish, piecing together a remarkable 16-1-5 run through the conference to earn its second consecutive regular season title.
To the surprise of Bobcat coach Rand Pecknold, Quinnipiac was tabbed the ECAC favorite again this year, even after the departure of four all-stars—its two leading scorers, a star goaltender, and a point-producing blue-liner.
As it turns out, the coach was onto something. The Bobcats (10-7-2, 6-4-1) have already lost three more games than they did all of last year, both overall and in conference play. Quinnipiac still boasts one of the most talented rosters in the league, but the Bobcats’ stranglehold on the conference has all but evaporated.
That means one thing. For the first time in 23 years, Harvard is going to retrieve its crown.
The first third of this Crimson campaign has provided ample evidence to corroborate this conclusion. Harvard’s been the better team in all but one of its first 11 contests—a tightly contested road battle with No. 6 Boston University that eventually went the hosts’ way. The Crimson’s only other loss—a road defeat at Quinnipiac—was the product of a goaltender’s off-night and a gaffe by a third-pair defenseman. Harvard largely carried the play against the defending ECAC champion for the first time in over a year.
With the nation’s third most prolific offense and a top-ranked power play unit, the Crimson has found a way to pummel contenders. A Boston College team ranked third in the country, a St. Lawrence squad unbeaten in the ECAC, and a Clarkson crew riding an eight-game win streak were all left in the dust after Harvard put together strings of four or more consecutive goals against all three.
Right now, the Crimson looks one step ahead of its ECAC competition. Like any team, Harvard has holes it should patch—its penalty kill has struggled, and its goaltending has been good, not great—but these trenches just aren’t deep enough to prevent the Crimson from topping the conference.
A discrepancy in games played currently has Harvard in sixth, but the Crimson is one of three ECAC teams with only one loss. The biggest surprise of the first half, Union (12-3-2, 8-1-1) stands four games ahead of Harvard in the win column. Yet, the Dutchmen have only beat one team in the upper half of the league standings—Quinnipiac, who somehow lost despite outshooting Union by an absurd 54-17 margin. Thus, as their schedule grows harder, the Dutchmen feel destined for a regression.
Then there’s St. Lawrence (10-5-4, 7-1-2), who’s only been bested in ECAC play by the Crimson. The Saints have been the conference’s top defensive team by a significant margin, and they’re scoring at the league’s third best clip. There’s a distinct possibility the regular season finale at the Bright between St. Lawrence and Harvard could determine the league champion; but that’s a game the Crimson should win.
Rounding out the shortlist of contenders, Cornell (7-3-1, 4-2-1) could be a dark horse if it can get healthy, and Clarkson (9-7-3, 5-3-1) has shown promise as well. And of course, there’s Quinnipiac, the team that left the door to the ECAC open in the first place.
Come March, any of these teams could capture a postseason championship, regardless of where they finish in the standings. Yet, there’s a reason why MLB teams pop champagne after winning their division and why NBA teams raise banners commemorating the equivalent. After a season-long grind, there’s something to be said about the team that claws its way to the top.
By regular season’s end, there too will be something to be said about this Crimson team. And I promise it won’t be “Ah, whatever.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.
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