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As the bus of the Harvard men's hockey team pulled up Wednesday night at its hotel, the bus driver announced over the intercom words that only eight of the guys have ever heard before, and then only once:
"Gentlemen, welcome to Lake Placid."
For the freshmen and sophomores, who comprise most of the team, this is their first trip to the Final Five of the ECAC Championships, held in Lake Placid. The upperclassmen made this journey in 1996 where they upset tournament favorite Vermont before losing to Cornell.
Now tonight, the third-seeded Crimson seek to advance to the ECAC finals when it battles the no. 2 seed Clarkson Golden Knights.
"We are all very excited," said junior defenseman Ben Storey. "My freshman year we went there and we had a great time. We are all hopeful and optimistic."
Harvard advanced to this round by sweeping Colgate last weekend at Bright Hockey Center. In a stroke of luck, Princeton and Cornell each upset favorites in the first round, bumping up Harvard's seed from fifth to third.
With the higher seed, the Crimson avoided playing the dreaded Thursday play-in game with the winner facing no. 1 seed Yale the following night. To capture the championship, these teams have to win three consecutive playoff games, a daunting task.
"That went our way big time, not playing Thursday," said junior forward Rob Millar. "The whole season you are trained to play two consecutive games, a third game would have been very difficult."
Still, Harvard decidedly lacks playoff experience, an invaluable postseason commodity. Moreover, they will face a perennial ECAC contender, veteran of many postseason matches. However, Harvard feels that any playoff jitters dissipated last weekend and the age differential should not be a factor.
"When you get down to it, the fact that you are a freshman or a sophomore doesn't mean anything," said senior forward Henry Higdon. "These guys played in a Beanpot Final, they played out in Wisconsin, they know what to expect."
Harvard certainly knows what to expect from Clarkson.
The Golden Knights swept both regular season games with the Crimson this year, most recently handing it a humiliating 5-1 defeat on Harvard's Senior night.
In both games, Clarkson seemed to completely outmatch Harvard, dominating the Crimson physically. The Golden Knights are arguably the most talented team in the league and certainly have the most depth. They take a nine-game winning streak into tonight's contest.
Harvard, though, thinks it can turn things around by first matching Clarkson's physical play.
"We know that everyone has to go out and make hits, or the score will be like last time," Millar said. "We are one of the bigger teams in the ECAC, its just a matter of willing it."
The Crimson also seeks to turn the Golden Knights' aggressiveness into an advantage. Lake Placid is an Olympicsized ice surface, which will create room for fleet skaters to dash through overcommitted defenders.
This should benefit a red-hot Crimson offense which has scored 20 goals over its past four games.
"We are going to have to be patient [with the large ice surface]," Millar said. "We have to attack with speed and take advantage of the holes it will create."
Harvard may have one less attacker Friday. Higdon sustained a knee injury in the final two minutes of last Friday's game. He did not play Saturday and will be a game-time decision for tonight's contest.
Still, everything seems to be falling in place for Harvard. The team is clearly playing its best hockey of the season, with excellent special teams and strong goal-tending by sophomore J.R. Prestifilippo. Riding a four game winning streak, its confidence is soaring.
"I think everybody gets up for the playoffs," Storey said. "Now is the best time to be peaking. I think we are really coming together."
The only question now is how far can the team sustain this effort. Two more wins earn the Crimson a bid into the NCAA tournament at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Beat Clarkson and then either Yale or Princeton and they are in.
It's that simple.
Remember, Lake Placid is the home of miracles on ice.
"We have got the sense that it's our time," Millar said. "Everyone feels that we are ready and we can really do some damage this weekend."
Welcome to Lake Placid.
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