Team of the Week: Harvard
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Last season, Harvard extended the momentum earned from an emphatic victory over Boston University in the Beanpot consolation game to a strong finish. Though that string of success, which included wins in five of its last six, ended with two one-goal losses to Dartmouth in the first-round of the ECAC playoffs, the results were a distinct reversal from the 4-17-1 record the Crimson amassed prior to the Beanpot.
Moreover, it showed the program was building toward better seasons in the future, as coach Ted Donato hoped his team's positive gains would continue in 2011-12. The team played well throughout the season this year, but remained stuck in the middle portion of the conference standings.
In the final weekend of the regular season — facing both St. Lawrence and Clarkson at home — Harvard had a chance to take a tremendous step forward and earn a bye in the first-round of the ECAC playoffs for the first time since 2007-08. And the Crimson responded resoundingly in the affirmative.
The team defeated both ECAC rivals, including earning a hard-fought, 3-2, victory against the Golden Knights Saturday night at the Bright Hockey Center. Those four points propelled Harvard to third place in the final ECAC standings and more importantly: next weekend off.
"I think (finishing third) is pretty important to us," Donato said. "That was our goal at the beginning of the season, and to get two wins at home — coming from behind — I think it shows a lot of character."
The many variables and possible playoff scenarios meant that the only certainly the Crimson knew was if the team took three points on the weekend, including a victory over Clarkson. After the game, Donato was proud of how his team responded to the challenge and erased a deficit of 2-0 against Clarkson.
"This has been a really resilient bunch to coach," he said. "To finish in third place, given the injuries early in the season and all of the guys who have been in and out of the lineup, it's really been a tremendous achievement for us."
Along with conference champion Union, as well as Cornell and Colgate, the Crimson will begin preparations for the ECAC quarterfinals.
Even with the surge to third place driven by strong play over the past several weeks, winning the ECAC tournament is likely all that remains for Harvard to extend its season. Though remaining a team-under-consideration in the most recent Pairwise calculation, Harvard is far from having the season required to earn an at-large bid from to the NCAA tournament.
But for the Crimson, that's not how they define their season — especially one with such progress and improvement. In fact, the team knows that it's only three wins away from winning the automatic bid. Such an achievement would involve beating three good teams, but it's not unreasonable given Harvard's recent form.
And a closer look at Harvard's record reveals that the team has played better than perhaps the reflection of wins, losses, and ties. The most interesting statistical oddity characterizing this Crimson team is the sheer number of ties it's earned this season. The 11 draws earned Harvard the single-season NCAA record.
It can be difficult for supporters of the program not to look back at some of these games and think what could have been with an extra bounce or another form of slightly better luck. Some of those, including the 44-shot performance against Massachusetts in December, easily could have turned in Harvard's favor.
"We've had a couple of heartbreaking ties with a lot of pressure and shots [in the final minutes], when we felt like we deserved to win," Donato said. "This group really hasn't taken any shortcuts in their approaches to games. For them to stay with it, it shows their character. It's the captains and the senior leaders of this group helping the team deal with the adversity."
A few of those ties converted to wins and the Crimson could presently be in consideration for a NCAA tournament bid. It's a valid consideration given that Harvard has only one more loss than No. 8 Union. Moreover, it's created the circumstance where Harvard has as many conference victories as ninth-place Dartmouth. But it also means that the team only lost in conference play five times.
However, many of Harvard's ties were earned after coming from behind in the third period. Against No. 11 Cornell in January, Harvard scored in the third period to secure a key point in a 2-2 tie at Lynah Rink.
As far as parallels with last season are concerned, the team's success is again trending positively. However, the team hopes to go even further into the ECAC playoffs this season. Making it to the quarterfinals is already another step forward.
One big difference this year is that the team has changed goaltenders. Freshman Steve Michalek had assumed the No. 1 role, but faltered in the second half, opening the door for sophomore Raphael Girard. Girard has taken the job and run with it, putting up impressive numbers over the last five games.
"We did find momentum out of the Beanpot consolation last year," senior captain Ryan Grimshaw said. "This year was different since we didn't have the losing streaks and we've been carrying ourselves throughout the entire year. We were able to build momentum and keep it going through the Beanpot."