Harvard looked to be on solid ground after Game 1 — a 5-3 win at highly regarded Dartmouth. The footing got a tad more treacherous shortly thereafter, as the Crimson fell off the map with an 0-8-2 tumble.
The Ivy took three W’s in a row and tagged on a tie in mid-January, but that was the last consecutive point streak the Crimson achieved in the regular season. Harvard staggered to the finish line on a 2-9-0 skid, surrendering a first-round home series in the process and generating little optimism for the road trip to Princeton.
Instead, the Crimson stunned the host Tigers 4-2 and 3-0, advancing on to Round 2 at archrival Cornell. The Ithacans promptly suffocated their Cambridge colleagues by an 8-1 two-game aggregate, leaving Harvard to ponder over what went so right, and then so wrong in the postseason.
For starters, coach Ted Donato’s crew won’t have to endure a five-game road trip to open the season. This year, Harvard commences with two games at the Bright Hockey Center — albeit against Union and Rensselaer — before a four-game road swing.
“I don’t think there will be that many similarities” between this year’s product and last, Donato said. “Our schedule will allow for a little bit more lead time coming into the season, and it’s a little bit more reasonable … out of the gate.”
The alumnus-turned-coach also likes the roster from top to bottom, and doesn’t feel that his lineup will be too adversely affected once the inevitable bumps and bruises begin to appear.
“I think we’ll have some good depth up front. We’ll have depth in offense, and our goaltending should be very solid,” he said.
“I think the biggest difference [from last year] is that we’ll have a little bit more balance through the middle of our lineup as far as experience goes,” Donato added. “Last year, I think on a lot of nights we were dressing nine or 10 forwards that were freshmen and sophomores; this year, that won’t be the case. It’ll be more like nine or 10 forwards who will be sophomores or juniors, and that will certainly be helpful to us.”
One thing Harvard will rely on is a breakout season or four out of a large group of slowly maturing strikers.
“We feel that there’s a big group of guys that can make a step forward; we’ll need that, but we’re very excited and optimistic going into the season,” Donato said.
The weak links
While potential is great, it’s meaningless if it never blossoms.
“We’re still very young, so inexperience is definitely a challenge for us. I think we’re counting on our freshman class from last year taking a big step forward,” Donato said. “Secondly, I think on defense we’ll have some inexperience, because we’ll [only] return three guys out of eight who have seen a substantial amount of games.”
Losing your top scorer and league rookie of the year is never a good thing, either, as Montreal product Louis Leblanc elected to jump ship and sign with his hometown team, the Canadiens.
“We were certainly excited at one time about Leblanc coming back, so that hurts, Donato said. I think RPI, you could argue they lost three of their top four scorers, so I think there’s a lot of change. I think [the league is] wide open.
“I like our blend, I like our level of talent, but I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to jell.”
Oh, how do you solve a problem like
Maria Harvard? The program has been undeniably disappointing for two years running, and the Crimson can’t bear a third consecutive nine-win season. The big killers have been prolonged winless streaks — both last year and the season prior — and that’s something that a consistent, diligent team will never endure. Harvard has the manpower and talent to be a threat, but fool me twice, shame on me: I tagged the Crimson as a fifth-place team two years ago, and fourth last year. Consider me a full-blown skeptic now; this is not a bye-quality team.