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Tonight’s opponent is immaterial. When the No. 13 Harvard men’s hockey team takes the ice against Brown this evening at Bright Hockey Center, its biggest challenge will be overcoming its own past.
The Crimson (12-6-1, 11-3 ECAC) has a long history of poor play following its annual three-week exam break. This trend has only gotten worse recently and bottomed out with a woeful 2-8-1 finish to the regular season last year.
“Everyone always wonders how come Harvard does so poorly after exams every year,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “It’s a tradition that when Harvard comes out they stumble for a while.”
Coaches are not allowed to run practices during the exam period. While most of the college hockey world plays a full schedule in January—Brown (9-8-2, 7-5-1) has played four times since Harvard last took the ice—Harvard has had to rely on player-run practices to ward off the rust.
“With a break like this you lose your conditioning, your timing, and your edge,” Mazzoleni said. “Even though the ice is there for practice, it’s much different when the coaches aren’t there. Guys may be showing up in the rink and going through captain’s practices to the best of their ability, but it’s just not the same pace.”
The three-week exam break has not seemed to affect Princeton, which also has January exams. The Tigers have had a winning record after exams each year under coach Len Quesnelle, despite finishing each year with a below .500 overall. Quesnelle focuses on restoring his team’s intensity and competitive edge when returning from the exam break.
“It’s a challenge,” Quesnelle said. “But it all depends on the types of players you have and their personalities.”
This year Mazzoleni is trying a new approach to avoid another post-exam slump. Rather than scheduling an exhibition game during the break as in years past, the coaching staff put the team through a three-day mini-training camp, designed to emphasize fundamentals and conditioning.
“We’re definitely turning it into a positive thing for us,” said sophomore defenseman Ryan Lannon. “The way practice has been going with the intensity and work ethic of the guys, I don’t think we lost nearly as much as we may have in previous years. In the past, our goal was not to lose anything. This year, our mentality has to try to get better, and from what I’ve seen we should be better.”
Brown poses an immediate challenge in Harvard’s quest for a successful finish. The Bears crushed Harvard 4-0 in the season opener for both teams. The listless Crimson was unable to crack star Bear goaltender Yann Danis, who stopped 30 shots in the whitewash. Danis already holds the Brown record for shutouts despite less than two full years of experience.
Harvard made things easy for Danis in November, rarely challenging him close to the net. The Crimson settled for long-range shots and failed to screen Danis or position players for rebounds. The team hopes to put more pressure on the Brown goaltender in tonight’s rematch.
“As good a goalie as he is, he can’t stop what he can’t see,” Lannon said. “They’re not going to be nearly as successful in the defensive zone as they were last time around.”
Brown’s win over Harvard has thus far represented the high point of its season. The Bears have yet to duplicate the level of play they achieved in November, when they won four of its first five games. After beginning the year with two shutouts, Danis has been merely very good rather than superhuman—his goals-against average and save percentage are significantly less impressive than his brilliant statistics from one year ago as a sophomore.
Brown enters tonight’s contest coming off two straight 3-1 losses to Hockey East foes Merrimack and Providence.
This season, the Bears have added some scoring to their traditionally feeble offense. Led by forward Les Haggett and Brent Robinson, Brown has four players scoring at a clip higher than any skater last season. Still, the Bears are at their best when relying on Danis and looking for counterattacking opportunities. Harvard swept Brown in last year’s ECAC playoffs despite Danis’ 66-save effort in Harvard’s double-overtime, 1-0 Game 2 victory.
“When Brown has won, it’s by playing a defensive game,” Mazzoleni said. “They’re opportunistic on the power play, they play well in their own zone and they have that underdog mentality. “
For the first time in recent memory, Harvard will play only one game in the weekend before Monday’s Beanpot. The ECAC has in the past forced the Crimson to play both Friday and Saturday—often on the road—while the three other Boston-area schools have just a single game before the tournament.
With the extra day of rest, another post-exam slide would be unacceptable for the Crimson, as Harvard needs a strong showing both tonight and in the Beanpot to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and perhaps the regular-season ECAC crown.
“We need to seize the moment,” Mazzoleni said. “What happened last year was a learning experience. We’re a year older and wiser. We have no excuses.”
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