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Centering Force

Bernakevitch looks to repeat last year’s stellar performance

By Rebecca A. Seesel, Crimson Staff Writer

He started out quietly last fall, feeding his teammates the puck, earning an assist here and there. Nothing flashy, nothing spectacular. But then something clicked—and all of a sudden, the puck started hitting the back of the net—and now, as the Harvard men’s hockey team heads into a new season with everything to prove, Brendan Bernakevitch’s secret is out.

It took a good two or three years for word to spread, but a stunning second half of last year’s campaign— 22 points in 19 games—left little doubt.

“We have certain players on our team that get a lot of the headlines,” said last year’s coach Mark Mazzoleni. “[But] Brendan has the ability to be our best player.”

If Bernakevitch can continue last season’s performance, though, he’ll do both.

DOWN THE STRETCH

At times last season, Bernakevitch was the Harvard offense.

In a Jan. 10 home game against Colgate, the forward’s two assists marked his team’s margin of victory. And when Harvard mounted a miraculous comeback at the Yale Whale on Feb. 6, Bernakevitch led the way with an assist, a power-play goal and an empty-netter to seal the 7-5 victory.

And he was just getting started. As the Crimson headed into its playoff stretch—a period few expected as the squad hovered around .500 throughout much of the regular season—Bernakevitch excelled.

He garnered at least a point in all six ECAC playoff games, including a pair of two-point games and a three-point effort to clinch Harvard’s first-round victory over the University of Vermont.

“He can turn it on when he has to,” says sophomore Steve Mandes.

The center’s offensive burst was all the more impressive considering he notched just eight points in the first 17 contests of the season.

And though Bernakevitch remained modest throughout the campaign, his performance could not help but attract attention.

He netted a third-period rebound to break a 1-1 stalemate with Dartmouth in the ECAC semifinals, propelling his team to the championship game.

And then, with just 39.4 seconds left the next night, Bernakevitch won a faceoff and slipped the puck back to Kenny Smith ’04 for the championship-winning goal. And a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

And, after 10 points in six games, the honor of Most Valuable Player in the ECAC tournament.

CENTER OF BALANCE

Last year marked Bernakevitch’s return to his comfort zone: the center of the ice.

“I’ve played center most of my life,” he says, explaining the difference between last year and his freshman and sophomore campaigns, during which he played winger to classmate Tom Cavanagh’s center. “I’m just a lot more used to it, and I can impact the play a lot more.”

He’s not kidding.

At the end of last season, Bernakevitch found himself on the top line, skating between 6’5 Dennis Packard ’04 and current sophomore Ryan Maki, who is 6’2.

The looming trio proved Harvard’s most potent, amassing 19 points in the last eight games of the season. All three scored goals in the Crimson’s final game, a 5-4 loss to Maine in the NCAA Tournament.

But with this year’s influx of freshmen—nine, to be precise—will Bernakevitch still be able to generate such offense?

“We have a young team,” he admits, “but playing with them on the ice and playing against them, they have a lot of skill. I really don’t think I’ll have to pick up a lot of slack on the scoring, because we have a lot of guys on our team that can score goals right now.”

Case in point: Bernakevitch’s slightly more lopsided line during Saturday’s exhibition against the U.S. National Development Program’s Under-18 team. The senior centered rookie wingers Jon Pelle and Dave Watters.

And as usual, though he is more than capable of offensive outbursts when he so chooses, Bernakevitch guided his young counterparts deftly.

Watters scored a pair of goals and garnered two assists, while Pelle notched a single goal and a lone assist. Six points for two freshmen. Not bad.

“I think I just have to be a steady presence in the middle,” explains Bernakevitch, who had two dishes on the night. “Just get the guys on my wings the puck and see what they can do with it.”

THE PRESSURE’S ON

Now a team laden with young and inexperienced skaters, Harvard must depend on its veteran statesmen.

This puts Bernakevitch in a unique position, though. Although undeniably talented, he lost a great deal of his first two years on the team to injuries. And with last year’s stretch drive, expectations are high from fans and teammates alike.

“I think this year’s going to be a big year for him,” says sophomore blueliner Dylan Reese. “We look to him for a lot of offense.”

But the big Canadian takes it all in stride.

“If I did feel any pressure,” he says, “I’d hope to use it in a positive light to continue to get ready for the games, to know that I have to show up to be successful and help our team be successful.

“I think that’s all I can do.”

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Seesel can be reached at seesel@fas.harvard.edu.

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Men's Ice Hockey