Patrick McNally has noticed something different around the Bright-Landry Hockey Center this season. Something other than the renovated locker rooms or expanded walkway. It’s something in the air.
“I think that it’s an atmosphere where everyone’s excited to play the next game,” said the fourth-year junior defenseman earlier this week. “In the past, maybe that excitement was kind of missing with almost a sense of, like, ‘We need to win.’”
Looking to improve on a seven-game winning streak, the No. 3/3 Harvard men’s hockey team will trade the confines of its Allston home for Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, when the Crimson (10-1-2, 6-1-2 ECAC) faces No. 19/- Yale (8-4-2, 4-3-1) in the second edition of the Rivalry On Ice game.
Over the past three months, Harvard has rekindled a culture of winning that had been missing for years. In November, the Crimson took out Hockey East’s top three teams on the road. In December, Harvard earned a decisive victory at Quinnipiac. And just last week, the Crimson stormed back from an early deficit to rout Rensselaer.
Harvard now sits No. 1 in every objective metric for nationally ranking college teams—win percentage, PairWise, RPI, KRACH, you name it. Naturally, positive vibes have been building around the squad and, according to McNally, have become self-reinforcing.
“You see the team during this streak, and everyone’s excited to go down to the rink, everyone’s upbeat,” McNally said. “I think that definitely helps with practice…and helps us get better.”
Neither McNally nor any of the other 30 players on the Crimson roster have been part of an intercollegiate streak like this. Prior to this year, Harvard’s program had not won seven straight games since the 2003-2004 season—the year before coach Ted Donato ’91 took the reins.
Among Donato’s tasks these days is an unanticipated yet welcome one: making sure that his players do not rest on their recent success.
“We weren’t picked especially positively by anybody at the beginning of the year, but we didn’t allow ourselves to get down,” Donato said. “On the flipside, I don’t think that we should be all too excited that we’re ranked higher now.”
Given the opponent, Harvard should not have a problem keeping an even keel going into Saturday’s game. After all, the Crimson’s only loss of the season is courtesy of Yale, and only a handful of seniors can say that they’ve beaten the Bulldogs. Junior co-captain Kyle Criscuolo is quick to reject the “favorite” label when talking about the match-up.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re the favorite,” Criscuolo said. “Yale got us earlier this year, so it’s always tough.”
Against Harvard, the Bulldogs have taken five straight games—the most recent one a 2-1 defensive clinic at the Bright-Landry on Nov. 15. Sophomore goaltender Alex Lyon gave the hosts fits, holding the Crimson scoreless until the game’s final seconds.
Since then, Harvard has been perfect, while Yale has had mixed success. The Bulldogs cracked the national rankings on Monday but blew a two-goal lead to a down-and-up Northeastern team the next day.
While coach Keith Allain’s squad has struggled to generate offense, Yale has made up for it with defense and discipline. The Bulldogs have received the fewest penalties in college hockey—28 fewer than the next closest Division I team—and before Tuesday, they were tied for the national lead in goals against average.
Overall, the national champion pedigree is still there—11 players on Yale’s current roster were on the 2013 NCAA title team.