How important is tonight's ECAC preliminary round playoff game against St. Lawrence for Harvard Hockey?
Put it this way: If Harvard wins, normalcy begins to return to a program in desperate need of it.
But if Harvard loses, all of our worst fears about the 1996-97 edition of the Crimson come true.
The stakes could not be any higher. Harvard has already fallen on the wrong side of the line which has divided the ECAC into haves and have-nots, top six and bottom six, every March since the league implemented its current playoff structure four years ago. The top six play next on Friday in the ECAC quarterfinals; everyone else either plays tonight or wishes they were still around to do so.
And two teams--one of Harvard and St. Lawrence, and one of Yale and Colgate--will be shown the postseason gate at the conclusion of tonight's games. The other two are given stays of execution for at least four more days, but it is the prospect of this first fate which should scare the shorts off of seventh-year coach Ronn Tomassoni, fourth-year team manager Andy Gunderson...and every Harvard skater in between.
For this is the first time that Harvard has ever had to face a Trial by Tuesday. Today is traditionally a day for a light practice and an elitist, very Harvard-like laugh at all of those lowly 7-8-9-10 teams. Tomassoni should be looking to scout his team's next opponent in action tonight.
But not this year. This year's team seems to have mentally staked its entire existence upon a desperate postseason dash like the one it made last year. Last year, an emotionally hobbled, physically depleted Crimson team streaked past a three-game series with St. Lawrence on the road, past a lake Placid date with eventual national semifinalists Vermont.
That team came one heartbreaking Cornell goal away from sneaking, in spite of itself, into the NCAA Tournament. Memories of that team kindle hope in even this cynic's heart for a similar run to glory this season--and as this year's voyage for regular-season honors foundered in the face of teams with superior reserves of both talent and luck, it is understandable why this team might have begun to think the same way. Even with tonight's additional hurdle still to be overcome.
But all of this begs the question: What makes for a successful season? In other words, does a season's end justify its means?
I ask you: Which team had the more successful season last year--the St. Lawrence team which finished 20-12-3, finished as high as third in the ECAC for the first time since 1991-92 but lost to Harvard in a three-game series, or the Harvard team which struggled to its worst regular season since 1979-80 but made that great playoff run?
To say that Harvard did is to deny to yourself the entire range of Everycoach's favorite truisms, from "We're taking it one game at a time," to "The season isn't a sprint, it's a marathon." It also denies the logic of playing a 30-game season when you might as well skip straight to the playoffs, stopping only for the Beanpot along the way, unless your team is good enough to merit consideration as an at-large addition to the 12-team NCAA tournament field.
I'm not saying that there is an empirically correct answer to the above question. But I will tell you this: a good playoff run doesn't cure ills which are intrinsic to a mediocre hockey team. It only makes you forget about them for a while.
Let me tell you a story. In 1991, the Minnesota North Stars finished with the 16th-best record in what was then a 21-team National Hockey League. Come playoff-time, the Stars snuck past one, two, three opponents, and Holy Cow, all of the sudden they were in the Stanley Cup Finals against Pittsburgh.
It was a great run, and a fun one to behold. But the team hardly became better for the experience, and in the five postseasons since they haven't even made it as far as the Conference Finals.
One year thereafter, the Harvard Crimson finished on top of a wild ECAC regular-season chase with an overall record of 14-7-6. Alas, it lost to eighth-seeded RPI, 4-3 in overtime, in its one and only postseason game--the single-game upset which prompted the ECAC to change its postseason format to a best-of-three quarterfinal.
It was a disheartening loss--but the Crimson rebounded with two seasons that saw them win a combined 46 games, a Beanpot title, an ECAC playoff title and make it to the NCAAs twice and the NCAA Final Four once.
Great teams make great playoff runs a habit, not a diversion. Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers, Cy Youngs' Atlanta Braves...Sean McCann's Harvard Crimson. They won their playoff games and their pieces of silverware because they were legitimately good teams, occasional postseason upsets notwithstanding (e.g. Oilers vs. Flames, 1986).
But with apologies to seniors Ashlin Halfnight, Joe Craigen and Marco Ferrari, if Harvard should lose, maybe it might be for the best in the long term. Harvard isn't a great team; it doesn't even seem to be a good one at the moment. And so much as one win tonight would paper over some cracks in the Crimson program which might be better healed by a full retooling.
Of course, this year's Crimson could conceivably get hot at just the right time, make it to Lake Placid, even make it to Milwaukee and the NCAA Final Four. Lots of people seem to believe that this team has a lot of talent which is just waiting to burst forth at the appropriate moment.
I want to believe this. We all do. But the Crimson's season might end tonight. And if it does, there could be a lot of white-jerseyed skaters sitting on their postgame locker-room stools wondering why the heck they left their season to the whims of postseason fate.