It’s a relatively short week in the ECAC, with only ten games on tap. Nothing nonconference-wise until Wednesday’s matchup between New Hampshire and Dartmouth, which some ECAC fans find a relief because of the league’s dismal record.
So here we are, back to the ECAC, and to the rivalries that make this league great.
The most interesting game of the weekend will take place at Bright Hockey Center on Friday night, when Yale takes on No. 13 Harvard in front of a predicted standing-room-only crowd.
This rivalry dates back many years and much has been said about it over that time, ranging from Yale coach Tim Taylor’s connection as a Harvard alumnus to the respective curses of the two rinks.
The modern-day ramifications, however, should steal the spotlight this weekend. For Harvard, the home series against Yale and Princeton marks the final two days of play before the team hibernates for its annual exam break, which will last 20 days this year. The Crimson returns to action on January 31 in a home contest against Brown before taking on Boston University in the first round of the Beanpot at the FleetCenter.
Although one of the most talented teams, the Crimson still has work to do before it can be considered among the best in the country. The team has yet to come up with a big victory, and is coming off a disappointing appearance in the Badger Showdown in Milwaukee.
After losing a tight contest in Maine two weeks prior, Harvard took on Northern Michigan in the first round of the holiday tournament and didn’t really show its power until it was down 2-0 in the second period. The team then turned around and dismantled Colgate for the second time this season in the consolation.
Frustration was etched all over the coaches’ and players’ faces following that tournament; they knew that they were dealing with a bigger issue than just one game.
After the Northern Michigan contest, Harvard captain Dominic Moore said of the team’s slow start, “We lost track of he competitive attitude that wins us games.” And following the third-place finish, sophomore Dov Grumet-Morris summed up the experience in Milwaukee as “progress, not perfection.”
The Crimson will need to perfect its game heading into the second half of the season. Aside from its two Beanpot games, Harvard has completed its nonconference schedule and will most likely have to rely on ECAC wins for a chance to make a second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The motivation for the Crimson this weekend will be to continue the momentum generated against Colgate and Union last week, before exam break. The good news is that the team returns home to Bright after nearly a month hiatus. Harvard is 4-0-1 at home, is undefeated in its last eight games at Bright and has outscored its opponents 21-11 in its five home dates this year.
“Obviously it’s a good sign that when we do play our game we can compete with the best teams in the country,” said Moore. “But it’s about time that we started treating ourselves as one of the best teams in the country.”
For Yale, this weekend represents a chance for the Bulldogs to rebound from a downward spiral of disappointing play, and also to gain ground in the ECAC standings. Yale stands tied with Cornell for second place and needs to position itself favorably heading into a difficult second half of the season.
The storied history with Harvard does not make Friday night a particularly easy game for the Bulldogs. In addition to matching up against the top team in the league, Yale has won only once at Bright Hockey Center since the arena’s opening in the 1979-80 season.
The team is coming off a topsy-turvy holiday break in which it defeated Bowling Green but fell hard to Minnesota and New Hampshire. Against the Wildcats, the Bulldogs continued to suffer goaltending woes and lost by a score of 5-0.
“I thought we did some things and at times accomplished a real good edge territorially, and creating scoring opportunities,” said Taylor following the loss to New Hampshire. “We had some great chances to tie it up early in the second, but in the end, they scored and we didn’t.”
In Yale’s favor will be the return of Chris Higgins, who turned ever more heads while playing with the U.S. Junior team during the holiday break. The sophomore forward, who has posted nine goals and eight assists in 10 games this year, finished third in scoring for Team USA and was the tournament leader with two shorthanded tallies. Higgins’ performance in Halifax, N.S., fueled the ongoing debate over his potential early departure from Yale for the professional ranks. He was the Montreal Canadiens’ top selection in last year’s NHL draft.
“I’ve thought about it,” Higgins told the Montreal Gazette. “If I have a good season, I’ll evaluate my position after the season. But, for now, I play for Yale and my focus is on helping them. If I do, that will help my hockey career, too.”
Higgins’ return most likely means regrouping the Nick Deschenes-Higgins-Vin Hellemeyer line that accounted for 17 goals and 36 points through 11 games. Who will start in net is still in question as Peter Cohen and Josh Gartner have been battling it out between the pipes over the past three games.
Games In Hand
Up in the North Country, two teams have plenty of games in hand. Both Clarkson and Dartmouth have a chance to catch up to the top. Clarkson, with five games in hand on Harvard, can get within three points of the Crimson should it reel off five straight.
The Golden Knights garnered two points this weekend and head coach Fred Parker likes what the Knights are gearing towards.
“I thought we made real strides this weekend,” he said. “I think we have the work ethic there, now we just have to put a little polish on it and make sure we come out on the winning side of both games next weekend. We are doing real well on the defensive side of things. We are not giving any team a whole lot of chances. I thought we were real, real good in that department against Colgate on Saturday night, and we were pretty good again on Sunday against Cornell. Just a couple opportunities we did give them, they put in the back of our net.
The Big Green can move into a tie with the Crimson should they win those five games in hand. The Big Green came back from a 2-1 deficit in the third period to defeat Vermont, 3-2 last weekend. In turn the Big Green picked up their first road victory of the season.
“It was a good game, I thought we played solid hockey,” said head coach Bob Gaudet. “It was a tough game for either team to lose; it was an up-and-down game, but I thought we performed well. We had an excellent third period and came out with a road victory.
“We needed to get back to basics and find a way to get the puck in on Vermont and it was a huge period for us to come out with two goals and a ‘W.’ A lot of younger guys matured quite a big in that kind of environment and on the road.”
The first road win of the seaso is important for the Big Green, whose confidence is getting there.
“They are tough teams and it’s a tough trip,” said Gaudet about the North Country. “Clarkson and St. Lawrence traditionally are two of the better teams in our league. We’ve just got to go up there and play hard and solid hockey and see where it comes. At this point of the season every team is going to be a battle for us. What we have to do is concentrate on what we have to do.”
“We do know that Dartmouth is playing very, very well,” said Parker. “They are on a bit of a roll in the ECAC, and Vermont is getting better and better as of late. So I think we will be in for another rough weekend.”
The other item to look for this weekend involves Dartmouth senior goaltender Nick Boucher. With the win over Vermont, he now has 40 career wins, tying Gaudet for most wins in Dartmouth hockey history.
“His wins are the biggest thing,” said Gaudet. “You can talk a lot about statistics and numbers and all those things are good, but what it comes down to for a goalie is wins. It doesn’t matter to Bouch whether you win the game 5-4 or whatever, as long as you win the game. He’s been proven a winner.
“I’m happy that he’s on the verge of breaking the record, and I hope he gets it soon.”
Route 7 Rivalry, Part Two
The Union Dutchmen and the Rensselaer Engineers meet again, this time in Schenectady, N.Y. The Engineers took game one of the series in December, 4-2, but both teams are coming in to the game in slumps. The Engineers have dropped four of the last five after the Union game. This past weekend the Engineers split with Minnesota-Duluth.
“It could have been a great weekend, but it was a good weekend,” said head coach Dan Fridgen. “It tunes us up for our league play and we’ve had tough competition thus far and it’s only going to get tougher. We just have to continue to grow and the honeymoon part is over.”
The Dutchmen have also lost four of the last five since the game against the Engineers, including four in row and last weekend to Harvard.
“There are a lot of good things to build upon,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon after the loss to Harvard. “I still think we’ve got a long way to go.”
It’s the game of games in hand for both teams. The Dutchmen have four in hand on the Crimson and the Engineers have five. Both have just ECAC games from here on out, Union with 14 and the Engineers with 15.
“It’s real important that we have to put some wins together and go from there,” said Fridgen. “It’s not that we’re looking for win hockey games, but we have to make sure we’re playing our systems and the guys are playing hard and consistent every night.”