“Get pucks to the net and good things will happen.” So goes the time-honored mantra of nearly every hockey coach.
On the final day of November, Harvard found itself mired in a three-game losing streak, down a goal on the road versus Dartmouth, with just over seven minutes to play, and in desperate need of something good to happen. Sophomore defenseman Marissa Gedman dumped an innocent-looking shot on net from the blue line as she entered the offensive zone, and the saying proved true once more. The Big Green goaltender allowed the puck to carom off her stick with a bit more life than desired, and it slid several feet in front of her.
For a team to take advantage of a break like that, they need to continue to anticipate a favorable bounce, even when they are in the midst of a stretch where the puck is seemingly always bouncing the other way. Sophomore center Elizabeth Parker did just that, timing her break from the blue line perfectly with Gedman’s release, winning the race to the exposed puck and snapping a forehand low past the goalie’s glove for the tying goal.
“What I think we take away from Wednesday night is staying on it,” said Katey Stone, now in her 18th season guiding the Crimson. “Down late in the third period, keep playing our game and keep hustling, good things happen.”
Lyndsey Fry backed up the goal with a seeing-eye backhand of her own 65 seconds later, Harvard held on for a 2-1 win, and the losing streak was over.
“We were happy to get away from Hanover with a win on Wednesday night,” Stone says.
Having secured the victory and thus a season split with the Big Green, the ECAC race appears to be shaping up favorably for Harvard. The Crimson are tied with Quinnipiac for the league’s second-best winning percentage at .750 and have completed play against Clarkson, Dartmouth, and St. Lawrence, all teams with winning records within the conference. The contest that is left with league-leading Cornell comes on home ice. Eight games remain with Brown, Rensselaer, Union and Yale, the teams with the worst ECAC results to date.
“We don’t think of it that way, honestly; we just think about who is next,” Stone says. “We know that we have some tough battles ahead of us with Princeton, Quinnipiac — everybody has good wins against other teams, and tough losses. So we’re just going to take it one at a time. We’ve got to play Providence and UNH here before 2011 closes, so our focus is very small right now, one game at a time.”
That Harvard is in contention is not surprising, given their history. Beginning with the 2002-03 season, when the current ECACH was formed from what had been the ECAC North the prior year, the Crimson have finished first in the league five times, with two seconds and two thirds.
Yet the composition of the roster presents another challenge, with one sparingly-used senior to go with seven juniors, five sophomores, and five freshmen. Such a class distribution and a rather short bench suggests that Harvard may be better suited to accomplish great things next season, rather than this one.
“That’s certainly something that our staff has talked about; we haven’t talked about it with the kids, because they obviously want to do the very best that they can all of the time and overachieve,” Stone says. “But as far as depth of roster and so forth, I think we are a year away.”
That’s not to say that the Harvard roster is devoid of impact players. Junior defenseman Josephine Pucci won a gold medal at the World Championships in April with the United States.
“She’s a difference-maker,” Stone says. “She’s tough defensively, and she’s a factor offensively for us. Oftentimes, we go as she goes. She plays pretty tough, and she’s a great player for these young kids to emulate and try to match her intensity.”
Junior forward Jillian Dempsey, who leads the team with six goals and shares the points lead with 11, joined Pucci on the U.S. roster at the Four Nations Cup last month.
“She just keeps getting better,” Stone says. “She still has plenty of room to grow, as all these kids do. There’s no quit in her, she’ll do whatever it takes. You can’t go wrong with kids with that kind of work ethic and determination.”
Another Harvard player taking her game up a notch this season is junior goaltender Laura Bellamy. She has her save percentage up to .914 through the early going, after stopping pucks at an .895 clip a year ago.
“Laura Bellamy is a huge reason why we are where we are right now, 6-4 having played a pretty tough schedule thus far, and missing some kids for Four Nations,” Stone says. “Lou Bellamy is at this point our most improved player by far. She’s keeping us in games when we are slow starting, and she’s won some games for us. That’s exactly what you want your goaltender at this level to do.”
The Crimson have needed Bellamy to stand tall in their net, as she is the only goalie on the roster with any NCAA experience. Unlike a few years ago, where a team like Harvard enjoyed a huge advantage over some opponents, affording opportunities to work in an untested backup or rest a regular, current schedules yield no such luxury.
“Particularly in the Ivy League, when you only have 29 contests, so you play your 22-game league schedule, and then there’s seven games and we play in the Beanpot, there’s very little flexibility to play an up and comer like Lindenwood or Penn State,” Stone says. “Those days are over for us. You have to be very calculated about who you play, when you play them. And you’re absolutely right, it becomes very difficult to experiment. You’ve got to go with what works, because otherwise the beginning of your season could be the end of your season if you don’t perform the way you need to.”
Teams such as Boston College and Cornell, that once offered a respite in the schedule, now challenge Harvard on the recruiting trail as well as the ice.
“Whether it’s Cornell or BU or BC or whoever it is making a greater commitment to their women’s hockey program in whatever fashions they choose, you can’t be concerned with that,” Stone says. “You just have to keep going out there and trying to win the recruiting battles and ultimately win the games you need to win.”
To date, Harvard has won enough of both to stay in the mix.
“I think we are a lot farther ahead than we were last year as far as being able to put certain things into our game plan,” Stone says. “We have such a great dynamic in the locker room; our kids are awesome. It makes it much easier to coach and get a lot accomplished, and there’s no shortage of hard work there. I feel really good about where we are.”