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It was hard not to pity Northeastern goalie Erica Silva as the No. 5 Harvard women's hockey team took full control in its 6-3 win against the now-No. 8 Huskies on Friday night.
After allowing her fifth goal of the night, Silva collapsed onto the ice in frustration and transformed into a mass of humanity as flat and lifeless as the playing surface around her. Had she the option at that moment of melting into the ice or burying herself beneath the crease, she just might have taken it.
The goal that made Silva crack was a beauty, set up by sophomore forward Kalen Ingram beating a defender down ice and dishing back to junior captain Jennifer Botterill all alone in front.
"We got some attitude in the third period," said Harvard Coach Katey Stone, who has now won five straight over Northeastern. "We came up against a tough goaltender, but I think we broke her down in the third period."
Silva has fallen a long way in one week since shutting out No. 1 Dartmouth. Following that pinnacle, she has dropped four straight, including a 12-0 humbling at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth and Friday night's debacle.
In searching for an explanation for her nightmare at Bright, Silva need not look further than the one-sided officiating which helped fuel the Crimson rally and the asymmetric scheduling that plagues women's college hockey.
Cowards on Ice
Cowards on Ice
Cowards on Ice
Needless to say, such behavior by the referees did little to maintain order on the ice. Not helping matters was the officials' balance of calls on the night. Harvard piled up 10 penalty minutes in the second period alone, as compared to just two for Northeastern.
That is an amazing statistic considering that at present, Northeastern is the second-most penalized team in the country while the Crimson is the 10th-least.
Perhaps the referees called so many penalties against Harvard because they took some twisted pleasure in repeatedly provoking Botterill. At one point in the second period, the game was delayed about three minutes as Botterill chatted with a referee, skated back and talked to her bench, then--finding another conversation too great to resist--skated back to the referee to resume her dialogue, before finally taking a faceoff.
"I guess we didn't see exactly the same things that they did, and we had to chat a little bit to see what was going through their minds," said Botterill. "But it was good, because they were very informative."
Friday night's game might have been enjoyed by fans of professional wrestling, a sport where body slams are commonplace and where athletes are rewarded for becoming actors.
"There were a lot of interesting calls. I don't think there was control of the game from the beginning," Stone said. "I questioned whether [the Huskies] were diving a lot. But it worked for them. If the refs aren't going to catch it then I guess it's a good strategy, but it's certainly not how we want to play."
The Harvard-Northeastern battle did not approach the level of physical violence of a typical men's game--the rules were enforced just enough to prevent that. But the relative disregard for the rules made Friday's game reminiscent of the version of hockey played between teenage thugs on rural frozen ponds
"There were definitely rules out there, but they just didn't apply to them," senior forward Tammy Shewchuk said sarcastically. "Stuff like that happens, but you just got to be prepared for it no matter what."
The Crimson responded brilliantly to the adverse conditions--scoring five goals in the last 10 minutes. The team clearly upped its intensity over the final stretch. The only possible criticism is that it took a whole two periods for the team to adjust.
"A hockey game is 60 minutes--if it was 40 minutes that would be a problem now wouldn't it?" Shewchuk responded. "It was just a matter of getting our chances and capitalizing on them."
The biggest culprit for the Huskies' demise has been their schedule. The team has played five games in nine days--all against teams ranked no lower than sixth in the nation--with plane rides between Minnesota stuck in between. Northeastern Coach Joy Woog told The Boston Globe on Friday that her team simply ran out of gas in the third period against the Crimson.
At the opposite extreme of the scheduling density spectrum is Harvard, who played just two games in 33 days between Dec. 3 and Jan. 6 and has a two-week exam break forthcoming.
Such long layoffs can be just as deleterious as Northeastern's overscheduling. The Crimson is 1-5 in the three weekends [including season's outset] following a multi-week layoff, and 10-1 in all other games.
"That two week break before Duluth [in December] didn't help us," Stone said. "We weren't sharp. But we're learning. Every year the schedule is going to change a little bit."
Women's college hockey has also been unbalanced in terms of its home and road scheduling. Take the top two teams from the WCHA: No. 4 Minnesota has played all of its tough non-conference games on the road, while No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth has played all of its non-conference games at home.
These scheduling flaws are particularly harmful because NCAA selection committees in the past, across all sports, will likely make their picks based solely on crude statistical measurements like wins and losses, and not on the circumstances surrounding the game--like where the game was played, how rusty or overworked the teams were at game time, and how many Olympians were absent from each team on that day.
Particularly disturbing is that the NCAA has not yet confirmed whether any automatic bids will be given out for the national tournament. The four teams that go to Minnesota may well be selected entirely at-large.
"I don't think anyone knows what will happen, so everyone's just going to try to win as many games as possible," Stone said.
None of this is good news for Harvard. The team has already shot itself in the foot by going winless in its four lone non-conference games against tournament contenders--none of which were indicative of the Crimson's best hockey. Two of the games were played without Botterill and Shewchuk, and all were played with Harvard rusty and its opposition well-rested and game-ready.
According to the NCAA News, the selection committee compares teams based on the record in the final 16 games, ratings percentage index, record vs. common opponents, record vs. teams above .500, and head-to-head results.
The four WCHA losses will make it incredibly difficult for Harvard to overtake either of the two Minnesota programs using the above criteria.
It's a foolish system that led to Harvard's denial to the tournament last year in lieu of Minnesota and Dartmouth. Yes, selection committees are that blind, and yes, they could do it again.
The bottom line is, Harvard's non-conference results leave the team with a smaller margin of error than the other teams at the top right now.
"You never know," Stone said. "Last year we thought we were in a good spot, but we were wrong. So whoever's in front of us, we have to go through them. That's how we're going to get back to Minnesota."
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