This weekend No. 1 Harvard faces one of the toughest challenges yet to its winning streak, now 17 games strong, with games at No. 6 St. Lawrence on Friday and Saturday night. A pair of games against an elite team may be old hat for all WCHA teams and some Hockey East members, but the Crimson has yet to play two games against ranked opponents in the same weekend since its last defeat to Minnesota in November.
While Crimson coach Katey Stone has always stressed to her team that its level of play must remain the same regardless of who’s on the other end of the ice, this weekend will be Harvard’s first full weekend of elite competition in three months. It will be a crucial test of the Crimson’s ability to pull off two top-notch wins — an obvious must if Harvard is to win an ECAC or NCAA championship this year.
— SLU coach Paul Flanagan on this weekend’s games
While Harvard is moving one game at a time with the Frozen Four a near-certainty, St. Lawrence has much simpler goals. The Saints have plenty of work to do to get back in the Frozen Four hunt, and coach Paul Flanagan says his team is looking at this weekend as just another chance to position itself for home-ice in the playoffs — in particular, the top three spots, since there is a huge gap between the ECAC’s top five and bottom four this year.
The Frozen Four is still a distant thought, and the Saints are setting their goals accordingly.
“It’s a big series, but if we get all worked up that we’ve got to sweep Harvard if we want a chance to go to the Frozen Four, we’re going to be stressing ourselves out,” he said.
The Saints are hardly in the best position to pull the upset. After playing among the toughest schedules in the country for the first two months, St. Lawrence just passed the softest part of its schedule with games against Cornell, Colgate and North Dakota.
Those aren’t exactly the best prep games for Harvard. Flanagan admitted that despite his team doing its best to prepare, the Saints were getting away with habits they can’t continue against the Crimson.
“The intensity just wasn’t there,” Flanagan said of the team’s recent games down the stretch. “We have to basically regroup a bit. Every shift for six periods this weekend, we’re going to play the best team in the country, and we need to be at our best.”
Adding to the complications is the fact that junior goaltender Rachel Barrie and forward Gina Kingsbury just returned from a successful week with the Canadian Under-22 squad, who won the European Air Canada Cup. Barrie and Kingsbury missed the last three games and two other forwards were out due to injury. With the team returning from its North Dakota trip on Monday, Flanagan has just three days to prepare.
Flanagan figures his players will make the most of that time, however, since they should have no trouble motivating themselves with the nation’s No. 1 team coming to town.
There were some positives to the most recent road trip. With the U-22 absences and injuries, more players got to see time off the bench. The trip was laid-back, and the team was thrilled to play in North Dakota’s new Ralph Engelstad arena, which will soon be hosting the WCHA Final Five.
“It gave everyone a chance to feel more like they’re part of the team,” Flanagan said. “All things considered, maybe those games came at a good time for us.”
Though Harvard’s offense, led by Julie Chu and Jennifer Botterill and two-way presence of Angela Ruggiero, has always been more highly-touted, its defense has been more infallible.
Owe that to the three Crimson lines that can control the puck or backcheck, and the veteran Harvard blueline corps, which is as deep as it ever has been. Three teams — Providence, Dartmouth, and Minnesota-Duluth — have held the Crimson offense to two goals, but only Minnesota has scored more than two against Harvard.
Flanagan’s advice in terms of scoring against Harvard was to keep things simple: put the puck on the net whenever possible, generate turnovers and catch the defense in transition.
“You just have to go out and play and not grip the stick too tight and worry about everything being perfect,” he said. “If you try to be cute out there, if you try to be too precise, their defense will take over.”
Flanagan is confident in its balanced offensive attack-eight Saints have more than 20 points.
Like most of the coaches who face the Crimson this year, he’s focusing more on shutting down the Harvard offense.
“Our biggest worry is in controlling them,” Flanagan said. “We need to score, but we need to do a real job slowing them down through the neutral zone and do a good job on our end zone coverage.”
He’ll need another outstanding game from Barrie to pull that off. Barrie has been a giant killer before. As a freshman, she was in net during the 2001 Frozen Four upset of then-No. 1 Dartmouth that lifted the Saints into the inaugural NCAA championship game. More recently this season, she delivered a 49-save shutout in a 1-0 victory over the Big Green.
The Crimson has had her number as of late, though. She is winless in her last three Harvard meetings — a 7-1 thrashing in 2001, a 5-3 defeat and a 2-2 tie in 2002. The tie was particularly devastating, because she surrendered the game-typing goal to Nicole Corriero with eight seconds left in regulation.
The Revenge Factor
The three points Harvard took in its two meetings with St. Lawrence last year proved costly to the Saints. They went on to lose the ECAC regular-season crown to Dartmouth by a single point. Flanagan respects the Crimson for playing inspired that weekend, and he hopes the Saints can return the favor.
“Maybe we can have a little payback this year,” Flanagan said.
Such thoughts don’t concern the Crimson. Teams have been gunning to knock Harvard out of the No. 1 spot since December, and St. Lawrence is no different from the rest in that regard.
“Bottom line is everyone wants to beat Harvard, so you have to play your best every day,” Stone said.
The Bottom Half
The competition for the final three spots in the ECAC playoff race will heat up this weekend.
As of today, none of the bottom four teams in the league had taken a point from the top five teams. Their records against one another so far this year are as follows:
Vermont’s games against Cornell and Colgate this weekend and the Cornell-Colgate home-and-home next week should do much to clear up the playoff picture. The final playoff spot may well come down to Yale-Vermont on the last weekend of the season.