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For the third time in three years, the Harvard men’s hockey team has been invited to the NCAA Championship dance. And this year, meeting a familiar foe at a familiar rink, the Crimson hopes to avoid a fate—first-round defeat—it has grown all too familiar with over the last two post-seasons.
The NCAA Championship brackets were released at 2:30 p.m. yesterday, although Harvard’s place in the NCAAs was assured by Saturday night’s 4-2 win in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championship over Clarkson. Winning the ECAC Tournament assured Harvard of having one of the six automatic-bids to the 16-team tournament, but the Crimson’s opponent and the regional site at which the team will play was only announced in yesterday’s decision.
Harvard is seeded No. 4 in the East regional and will face-off against the University of Maine Black Bears, the team that knocked Harvard out of the 2002 NCAA Tournament in a 4-3 overtime game. The East regional will take place at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, site of the Crimson’s bid-clinching victory on Saturday night. Maine secured a No. 1 seed and won a 2-1 thriller in triple overtime against UMass in the Hockey East Championship on Saturday, so Friday’s 5 p.m. game will be a matchup between conference champions, the ECAC versus Hockey East.
In addition to the 2002 NCAA Tournament loss, Harvard and Maine matched up during the 2002-2003 season, when the Crimson traveled up to a “neutral” site game in Portland, Maine. Harvard lost that game 4-2, and the bitter memories of that loss, and even more the loss in the 2002 tournament, linger in the minds of Harvard’s players.
“I think we could play [Maine] tomorrow with the adrenaline,” Harvard captain Kenny J. Smith ’04 said. “But it’s good to get a week [to rest].”
“We won the championship, but I’m sure there are things we can work on,” Smith continued. “We’ll use these next couple of days to get ready.”
This week, getting ready will encompass both analyzing videotapes and preparing for Maine, and also an emphasis on continuing to do the things that have helped Harvard get this far.
“We’re obviously playing the best hockey of our year right now, so that’s what we’re going to try to focus on,” goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris ’05 said.
Maine is playing its best hockey of the year as well. Despite an impressive regular season that saw them finish with a 30-7-3 record, Maine finished second behind Boston College in the Hockey East regular season. Maine’s winning streak, which now stands at seven games, equals the Crimson’s current streak. But those numbers mean relatively little now, given the time of year. The NCAA Tournament is, according to Grumet-Morris, “a whole new season”—a season that takes on added importance given the team’s struggles during the regular season.
Predicted in pre-season polls to finish as high as No. 6 in the country, Harvard struggled through its regular season, finishing sixth in the ECAC and was predicted by many to bow out of the conference tournament with a first-round loss. So, despite the unlikely league championship, that much and more was expected in the pre-season. Harvard hockey fans hoped that the Crimson would take the next step—moving from simply qualify and competing in NCAAs—to actually winning some tournament games and challenging for a national title. Those expectation put added emphasis on an already high pressure weekend.
“It’s very important to get a win [this weekend],” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “We’re representing the ECAC…and our team is prepared for this challenge.”
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at email@example.com.
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