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It used to be that a date with Cornell was a near-guaranteed win for the Harvard women’s hockey team. The Crimson had the Big Red’s number of late, winning 10 straight contests over the last three seasons—including sweeping Cornell out of the last two conference playoffs.
And when Harvard traveled to Ithaca last weekend, the cards seemed to be stacked in its favor. The Crimson was picked to finish second in the ECAC this year; the Big Red was expected to finish seventh. Plus Cornell’s biggest threat, forward Rebecca Johnston, is away from the team this season to train with the Canadian Olympic squad.
But this time, history didn’t repeat itself. Harvard took the ice at Lynah Rink and fell behind, 1-0. Every time the team fought back from a deficit, the Big Red would come back to seize control.
With three minutes to go in the game, Cornell senior Melanie Jue put the puck in the net and the last nail in the Crimson’s coffin. The Big Red skated off the ice with the 4-3 win—a victory that, combined with the team’s shutout of Dartmouth the night before, put Cornell in the national rankings for the first time in recent memory.
For the Big Red, the sweep of the powerhouse pair of Harvard and the Big Green was a historic event for a team that hasn’t finished with a winning record since the Clinton administration. For the Crimson, it was a sharp reminder that the ECAC is no longer its personal playground.
“I think the league’s going to be really strong,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said in a preseason interview. “It’s going to come from everywhere. Brown’s better than they were a year ago, Cornell’s continuing to get better, certainly…Clarkson’s off to a tremendous start.”
If anything, the opening weekend of ECAC play has proved Stone right. There are three conference teams in the national rankings right now, but only one—No. 7 St. Lawrence—was picked to finish in the top four in the league.
While Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton—predicted to finish second, third and fourth—are all receiving votes in the latest poll, it’s Clarkson that has provided the biggest surprise of the season so far.
After a disappointing season last year, the Golden Knights weren’t expected to do much better this winter. But Clarkson hosted then-No. 6 Boston College in the season’s opening weekend and came away with a win and a tie.
And from there, the victories just kept on coming. The Golden Knights took down three ranked teams—No. 4 New Hampshire, No. 8 Boston University, and St. Lawrence—in four days in late October, beating them all by at least three goals. Now 9-1-1, the Golden Knights moved up to No. 2 in the country on Monday.
For a conference that had been dominated by three teams for most of the decade—since the 2000-01 season, Harvard, Dartmouth and St. Lawrence have won every regular-season and tournament title but one—the increasing parity of the ECAC has been a long time coming.
The first hints of it rose up in early 2009. Princeton slipped past the Big Green in the regular-season standings, breaking up the Big Three for the first time since 2006. Then Rensselaer upset the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs, coming to Cambridge for its first championship weekend—and promptly upsetting the top-seeded Crimson for a place in the final game.
Harvard’s not the dominant team it has been for the last decade. For the first time since women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998, no current Crimson player will be competing in the Games. Last year’s top three scorers are gone, and with only enough skaters to fill out three lines, Harvard’s going to have to rely heavily on defense and its seven rookies.
“Every team is different,” Stone said of this winter’s ECAC squads. “Some teams didn’t lose offensive punch, but they might be a little weaker defensively or in goal. I think the personality of each team is going to be unique. The key for us is going to be to stay healthy—with a small squad, to stay healthy, and to keep our game simple and get really good at what we do.”
It’s too early in the season to tell exactly what that Crimson personality is going to be. Defensive leadership, particularly from co-captains Cori Bassett and Kathryn Farni and senior netminder Christina Kessler, will likely guide the team. Junior Katharine Chute, the top returning scorer, has stepped up so far, with four points in the opening weekend, and she’ll need help from senior Anna McDonald and junior Kate Buesser to give the offense veteran production.
But as the Crimson searches for the style of play that will guide it to ECAC success, the squad will get quite the test in its first weekend at home. Clarkson and St. Lawrence are visiting Bright Hockey Center, and Harvard will have to figure things out fast to avoid falling in a 1-3 hole to start the season. But after being upset itself last week, the Crimson now has the chance to pull off the underdog win.
It might not be the easiest season for Harvard hockey, but the team has the experience and talent to skate with every team in the conference. And the increased competition in Eastern hockey can only improve the Crimson’s level of play.
Since the NCAA recognized women’s hockey as an official sport in 2001, a Midwestern team has won every national title. Now the top two teams in the country, and three of the top five, are programs from the East.
How Harvard stacks up against this competition remains to be seen. But though fans may long for the era when winning 20 games was nearly a guarantee, as a writer, I couldn’t be more excited to be along for what promises to be a fascinating ride.
—Staff writer Kate Leist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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