Harvard Aims to Cool Golden Knights Momentum

Some teams might feel the pressure of a number one ranking. Some teams might be wary of the target on its back. Some teams might feel shaken after nearly falling to an outmatched opponent in the quarterfinals.

But Harvard women’s hockey is not the average team.

When the Crimson (29-1 overall, 24-0 ECAC) takes the ice for the ECAC semifinals against No. 9 Clarkson (24-8-5, 15-6-3) tomorrow at Bright Hockey center, the team will do so as both the number one seed in the tournament and the number one-ranked team in the country.

Harvard has held the top position for five weeks, and the players know they’ve earned it.

“We feel really confident with the work we’ve been putting in heading into the playoffs,” senior tri-captain Caitlin Cahow said.

“Getting two hard-fought victories last week has gotten us thinking about how much we can accomplish.”

Cahow is referring to the thrilling 3-2 and 4-2 quarterfinal victories over a Cornell team that fans expected the Crimson to crush. Nonetheless, when the buzzer finally sounded, it was Harvard that earned a place in the upcoming single-elimination semifinal, continuing its quest to add a tournament win to its regular season title.

If the past holds any implications for the playoffs, the Crimson have plenty of evidence to feel confident about the upcoming battle after defeating the Golden Knights 5-0 and 3-1 in two regular-season contests, the last of which occurred on Jan. 12. But, head coach Katey Stone knows it will not be so easy.

“In the tournament, everyone starts back at zero,” Stone said. “At this point each team has two wins and that’s all that matters.”

In fact, the Golden Knights have the potential to challenge the number one seed.

The ninth-ranked team in the nation has made a strong showing in the tournament and snapped a nine-game losing streak against Princeton to advance to the semis. After dropping game one of the quarterfinals to the Tigers, Clarkson delivered a stunning 3-2 overtime victory to force a decisive game three. Leading scorer Marie-Jo Gaudet added her 23rd and 24th goals of the year to clinch the series and continue the most successful season in the five-year history of the program.

Still, the best team in the country has a plan.

“Cornell came in having clearly studied us closely on film,” Cahow said. “So we’re trying to tweak the things that we do. We have to be able to make any kind of play on the ice.”

Harvard’s players also have plenty of respect for Clarkson’s defensive abilities.

“They have good goaltending, so we want to put a lot of shots on net,” Cahow said. “But it’s mostly about making good choices. We want quality not quantity.”

With its depth, the Crimson can look to many players to accomplish this objective, but perhaps none is more critical to success than junior forward Sarah Vaillancourt.

The team leader in goals and assists, Vaillancourt has been a force on the ice all season long. The Olympian also leads Harvard with a gaudy .141 shot percentage, meaning that she knows how to generate quality shots.

Not surprisingly, though, the nation’s best team displays excellence up and down the lineup rather than relying on a couple of superstars. Despite the fact that Vaillancourt and Cahow have earned national recognition as finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award that recognizes the top player in NCAA women’s hockey, Stone insists that the Crimson’s success is a team effort.

“Everyone has played well,” she said. “All 24 players have contributed and that’s the reason we’re here.”

Certainly, Harvard’s vaunted offense has been matched all season with stellar defense.

Cahow and sophomore goalie Christina Kessler anchor a unit that leads the country with only .90 goals allowed/game and boasts the nation’s fourth best penalty kill at 91%. Kessler herself has been nothing short of dominant, posting the top save percentage and winning percentage during the regular season at .956 and .964 respectively.

“From the beginning of the season one of our primary goals was to play great defense,” Stone said. “We wanted to be consistent and play tough and overall I think we’ve done that.”

With the remainder of ECAC and the NCAA tournaments ahead, Harvard will have to maintain its strong determination throughout the postseason and weather the pressure of a number one seed.

Despite a recent invitation to join the US team in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships in April, Cahow is displaying the focus needed from every player at this time of year.

“It’s a wonderful honor to represent my country, but right now it’s all about Harvard Hockey,” she said.

With the team poised to make a run for the national title, the fans may soon feel that way, too.