For the past three years, there had been a monkey—or more accurately speaking, a bulldog—on the back of the No. 17/15 Harvard men’s ice hockey team.
With the rubber match of the ECAC quarterfinals going to double overtime and No. 19/- Yale continuing to generate great chances to get the game-winner, the claws of the bulldog seemed to dig in deeper. But when junior forward Jimmy Vesey controlled a rebound off a shot from fourth-year defenseman Patrick McNally and lifted the puck past Yale sophomore goaltender Alex Lyon, the Nashville Predators draft pick shrugged off the bulldog with one flick of the wrist.
But even though Harvard was able to beat Yale—and do so twice—for the first time since March 2012 to keep its season alive, more work awaits the team if it wants to accomplish its ultimate goal of winning the ECAC Men’s Hockey Tournament and clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Harvard travels to fabled Lake Placid, N.Y. to take on No. 7/7 Quinnipiac on Friday in the semifinals of the conference championship with a trip to the final at stake. The Crimson has not won the conference championship since 2006.
“There was a lot of relief from the stress and physicality of the [Yale] series, but I think we’ll be able to regroup,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 during a tournament teleconference on Monday. “We’re just focused on winning our next game and playing our best and seeing where everything falls. I worry a little about physically and mentally recovering, but I don’t worry about our focus.”
Harvard now sits at 15th in the PairWise Rankings, a great indicator of the 16 teams that will be chosen to duke it out in the national tournament. But with a loss on Friday, Harvard would all but likely fall out of the top 16, severely hindering its chances of earning an NCAA Tournament berth.
“Our guys had a goal from the beginning of the season to make it to the championship weekend and to get to Lake Placid,” Donato said. “Our guys are very excited.”
Harvard, in that case, will hope for much different results than the last time thesse two teams squared off at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center in late February. The Bobcats rode a first period in which they scored three goals on 14 shots (to Harvard’s six) to a 5-1 lead early in the third period before a late goal from sophomore Sean Malone made the final score differential three in favor of Quinnipiac.
Two of those five goals came off the stick of last year’s ECAC Rookie of the Year Sam Anas. The sophomore ranks third in the conference with 23 goals scored on the year, accounting for more than 20 percent of his team’s goals. He also had an effect beyond the box score in the two sides' last contest. Pinned against the boards, Anas sent a between-the-legs pass to senior Matthew Peca, who would be credited with the second assist on the ensuing goal.
But in Game 3 of the Bobcats’ quarterfinal series against Union, Anas left the ice with a left leg injury in the first period, leaving his status for Friday’s contest up in the air.
Regardless of whether or not the sophomore is on the ice, there’s reason to believe that Friday’s game between the two New England schools won’t be so lopsided. When the Crimson fell 5-2, Patrick McNally was absent with a knee injury. He returned to the surprise of many—and the chagrin of the Bulldogs—for the Yale series, notching the game-tying goal to send Game 3 into overtime as well as the assist on Vesey’s game-winner. With McNally, Harvard earned a 5-2 win on the road against Quinnipiac on Dec. 6.
“[Harvard just has] a ton of talent,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold on Monday. “It’s going to be a lot for us to handle on Friday, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
A healthy and reintegrated fourth-year forward Colin Blackwell also adds a dimension to the Harvard offense that the Bobcats have not yet seen this season. The North Andover, Mass., native was playing his first game of the calendar year against Quinnipiac, and since his one-game stint on the fourth line that night, he has rejuvenated the second line, scoring three goals and adding an assist on McNally’s game-tying goal in Game 3.
“It was probably the healthiest we’ve been all year headed into the [Yale] series,” Donato said. “Getting guys like Blackwell and Patrick McNally back in the lineup...[we’re] in some ways a new team.”
—Staff writer Kurt T. Bullard can be reached at email@example.com.
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