Make no mistake about it: to deem this weekend’s homestand against No. 9 Cornell and No. 13 Colgate anything less than crucial for the No. 12 Harvard men’s hockey team would be entirely false.
Atop the ECAC standings by a mere point entering the second half of league play, the Crimson (9-4-2, 6-3-1 ECAC) will face a pair of familiar foes that defeated Harvard by a combined 6-1 count earlier this season.
“I think this is a huge weekend for us, for a lot of reasons,” said Crimson coach Ted Donato ’91, who went on to mention, specifically, Harvard’s 20-day exam layoff after this weekend’s competition. “The taste that we leave in our mouth this weekend should stay there for a while, so we want to make sure it’s a good one.”
The two games—Friday against Colgate (13-5-0, 5-1-0) and Saturday against Cornell (8-3-2, 4-1-1)—follow a similar 15-day break from competition. The week before Christmas, in the Dodge Holiday Classic, a sluggish Crimson squad mustered a scoreless tie against Northern Michigan and was stunned, 6-4, by Merrimack.
During the tournament, held at the University of Minnesota, Donato estimated that nearly 80 percent of his active roster had been battling a flu-like illness.
Now, though, “we seem to be pretty healthy—knock on wood,” Donato said. “That’s a huge advantage that we didn’t have [in the tournament].”
And Harvard will need that advantage as it faces two top-15 opponents in as many days. Both visitors have enjoyed successful streaks of late, with the Raiders taking five of their last six games and the Big Red four of its last five.
In just its second and third contests of the season, the Crimson faced the two squads, failing to produce any sort of offensive flow in either game. As weeks passed, though, the pieces of the Harvard offense fell into place—a byproduct of patience, according to all concerned.
“It was a new system for everyone,” said goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris of his team’s losses—2-0 in Ithaca and 4-1 in Hamilton, N.Y. “I’m excited. We’ve played some good games [recently]...and I’d like to see how they do in our rink.”
The Harvard team that will play in front of its home crowd this weekend is a far cry from that of early November.
“I’d like to think we’re a different team, that we’re much improved and much more on the same page as a group,” Donato said. “Certainly, Cornell and Colgate probably think they’re better teams than they were at the beginning of the season, too, but I think with a new coaching staff and trying to integrate ten new [freshman] into your lineup, it’s a process, and hopefully we’re a much better team for having gone through that process.”
And if increased offensive production is any indication, the Crimson is, indeed, a better team for that proccess. Even including the abysmal holiday tournament, Harvard has dropped just two of its last 12 games and has scored three or more goals eight times. With Grumet-Morris between the pipes—his .942 save percentage is second-best in the nation—that kind of output should be more than enough.
According to team captain Noah Welch, this improved attack is due, in large part, to an improved defensive effort by the entire team.
“I think our defense, actually, is so much better, and you get offense from defense,” he said. “If you take care of stuff in your own zone, you create odd-man rushes and you create more in the offensive zone.”
This is reflected by a Harvard penalty kill that has been a quiet force all season long, though often overshadowed by its highly successful special teams counterpart, a penalty kill with a 23.1 conversion rate.