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In so many ways this season has been a return to glory for the Harvard men’s hockey team. The team records and individual statistical accomplishments not seen since 1994—the Crimson’s last Frozen Four year—are too numerous to count.
But all those successes hang in the balance this weekend in Albany, N.Y. One loss could transform a regular season of triumphs into a year of failed expectations.
Tonight begins the ECAC Championships, where the thinnest of margins separates Harvard’s first-ever repeat tournament title—and an automatic NCAA bid—from an early start to the off-season.
The No. 12 Crimson (21-8-2) face Dartmouth tonight at 7 p.m. in the tournament semifinals. Beat the Big Green (19-12-1) and Harvard will meet the winner of Brown and No. 2 Cornell on Saturday night for the conference title. All games will be broadcast live on NESN.
Dartmouth enters Albany having survived a scare from Colgate, winning the best-of-three series despite losing Game 1 in four overtimes—the third longest game in college hockey history.
Cornell is the heavy tournament favorite and swept Harvard this season. But Crimson coach Mark Mazzoleni said his team has no intentions of relinquishing its ECAC crown.
“We’re going in to defend our championship,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “But remember this, when you defend something you dig your heels in. We’re not digging our heels, we’re right on the balls of our feet.
“We’re going in there to win this thing. And I know there aren’t many people that are giving us any chance at doing that. But they also forget who won the championship last year.”
Yet unlike last year, a loss in the ECAC Championships may not end Harvard’s season—the Crimson can still earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament without the conference title.
Northern Michigan’s win over Michigan State last night puts Harvard in excellent position to earn an NCAA berth should it beat Dartmouth. Barring any conference tournament wins by underdogs, Harvard ranks 13th out of 14 at-large teams according to the USCHO Pairwise Ratings, and the schools immediately below it have finished their season and cannot gain on the Crimson. On the other hand, a loss to the Big Green tonight likely means Harvard’s season will be over after Saturday’s consolation game.
Not that the team will be thinking about any of this once it takes the ice.
“We’re going there to win the tournament,” said sophomore goalie Dov Grumet-Morris. “We’re not going there to win one game.”
On paper, Harvard has the ideal road to the ECAC championship. The second-seeded Crimson avoided a semifinal matchup against Brown, whose goaltender Yann Danis is capable of stealing a single-elimination game all by himself. That task falls to Cornell, which could only muster a tie against the Bears last month thanks to 44 Danis saves.
Instead, Harvard gets in Dartmouth an opponent it has dominated in recent years—the Crimson is 6-1-2 against the Big Green under Mazzoleni and swept both meetings this season, including an easy 4-1 win last month in Hannover.
“We match up well against them,” Grumet-Morris said. “We are a physical enough team to handle what they can bring to the table in terms of forechecking.”
Mazzoleni attributes his team’s success against Dartmouth to extra motivation on his players when playing the Big Green. It’s a phenomenon he can’t fully explain, since he says the coaching staff prepares the team the same no matter the opponent.
“I don’t know…I think it’s because we have a lot of respect for them, and we realize that if we don’t play our best game, they’re capable of beating us,” Mazzoleni said. “Maybe it catches the attention of the kids a little better.”
Harvard’s respect for the Big Green is certainly justified. Dartmouth owns victories over Cornell and then-No. 1 Boston College and features one of the most dangerous lines in the country in sophomore Lee Stempniak and freshmen Mike Ouelette and Hugh Jessiman—the ECAC rookie of the year.
Dartmouth’s top line is so dangerous because the team tends to group its best players together. That line features the Big Green’s three highest-scorers, and the team’s best defensemen—seniors Trevor Byrne and Pete Summerfelt play together and log a huge chunk of ice time. It’s a tendency junior Tim Pettit says the Crimson can exploit.
“We need to spread out the offensive zone,” Pettit said. “If we can go out there and have them chase us around, then they’ll get tired and we can force them into mistakes.”
With matchup advantages over Dartmouth, Harvard’s biggest challenge might be channeling its own emotions. Harvard has struggled somewhat in critical games this season, finishing 0-5-1 against ranked foes. In particular, the Crimson hopes to avoid a recurrence of last month’s loss to Cornell, when it came out too emotionally high and gave up three first-period goals.
“I talked about it Monday with the players, but it’s got to come from them,” Mazzoleni said. “You have to always be in that mean range where you have the competitive instincts and focus and the juices aren’t flowing too hard.”
Harvard hopes to capitalize on its experience from last season’s playoff run. The Crimson entered the semifinals last year still recovering from a February slump, still unsure of its abilities. This year Harvard has lost just twice since the exam break and comes into Albany with the added confidence of past postseason success. Dartmouth, on the other hand, has not won a game in the ECAC Championships since 1980.
“We know exactly what we need to do to win,” Pettit said. “We don’t panic, and we have a lot of experienced guys that have been there before. We’re going in with a lot of desperation, and we’re going to be able to win some big games.”
The Crimson will welcome the return of junior Brendan Bernakevitch, out for a month with a hip flexor. Bernakevitch will add a physical presence to the line of Pettit and sophomore Tom Cavanagh. Mazzoleni said junior Tyler Kolarik, last year’s playoff hero, has a “50-50 chance” of playing this weekend after suffering a shoulder injury against Vermont.
—Staff writer Elijah M. Alper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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