With a 29-game regular season in the books, the stage is now set. Playoff hockey has returned to Cambridge.
After finishing third in the ECAC, the No. 12/12 Harvard men’s hockey team will host a tournament quarterfinal series this weekend for the first time since 2012—the season before this year’s senior class, which includes co-captains Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo, arrived on campus.
Besides coach Ted Donato ’91, the only link between the 2012 and 2016 editions of the Crimson is fifth-year senior Colin Blackwell, whose empty-netter in the final minute of last year’s ECAC championship game locked up the Whitelaw Cup—a cup that Harvard was hardly expected to hoist.
The ensuing banner-raising may have been unexpected, just not for a lack of talent. After all, this was a team that reached No. 1 in the PairWise rankings midway through the 2014-2015 season.
But a second-half slide, one that featured nine losses in 13 games, more than tempered postseason expectations, as Harvard slipped all the way to sixth in the conference.
In the process, the Crimson’s hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament all but dissolved. To have any shot of reaching the Big Dance, Harvard at the very least needed to reach a specific checkpoint: the conference semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Last year when we were heading into the playoffs, we knew our backs were against the wall,” Criscuolo said. “We had to win games, and that helped us. That was a winning recipe for us. That’s sort of the way we’re looking at it [now]. We feel like... this is it, and we need to win this weekend to advance.”
Currently ranked 11th in the PairWise, the Crimson (16-9-4, 12-6-4 ECAC) would reach the 16-team NCAA tournament without a problem if the season ended today. However, since leagues award automatic bids to their tournament champions—teams that might not be ranked among the top 16—Harvard has little margin for error. A series loss this weekend would immediately place the Crimson’s season on life support.
Hoping to punch a ticket of its own, Rensselaer (18-13-7, 8-7-7) would like nothing more than to place Harvard on the ropes. Currently on the outside of the tournament picture looking in, the Engineers could jump into contention for an at-large bid with a win over the hosts, whom RPI has already beaten in Cambridge this year.
The two sides have met three times this season, including once in the championship game of the Shillelagh Tournament, which the Crimson won convincingly, 4-0. In the final two matchups, however, Harvard scored just one goal in two games—a 2-1 Engineer win at the Bright and a scoreless draw in Troy, N.Y.
Nonetheless, the Crimson’s recent lack of scoring against RPI cannot be attributed to a lack of offensive production. In fact, Harvard’s three highest shot outputs (50, 45, and 43) this year have all come against the Engineers. But after missing the two teams’ first meeting, RPI senior goaltender Jason Kasdorf played lights out in the final two, conceding a single score and keeping the Crimson out of the win column each time.
“Kasdorf is definitely a top-end goalie in college hockey, so we need to make the game hard for him and get traffic in front of the net,” sophomore forward Seb Lloyd said. “Then I think the series will definitely go our way.”
Criscuolo was also quick to praise the Engineer netminder.
“We don’t expect to get many second-chance opportunities,” the co-captain said. “But we’re going to do our best to [get] in the goalie’s eyes and be in front of the net.”
Coming off consecutive 33-save outings in a two-game sweep of Brown last weekend, Kasdorf is locked in a tie for fourth nationwide in save percentage. However, he did concede five goals to the Bears, including three in the first period of Game 2.
Nonetheless, RPI—a team known more for its defense than its offense—found a way to bail out its goaltender. The Engineers struck four times in a row on Saturday, and Kasdorf held his own over the final two periods, propelling the team into the quarterfinals against Harvard.
“They’re a hard working team,” Lloyd said. “They play well both ways. We’re going to have to be smart with the puck, but also we have to play with a lot of confidence out there and make plays.”
With two weeks of rest under the Crimson’s belt, there is little reason to believe that this matchup will be anything different from the ones before it. Once again you can expect Harvard to fire an inordinate number of shots at Kasdorf.
Across the ice, it will be up to sophomore netminder Merrick Madsen—playing in his first career playoff series—to prove himself as a worthy adversary.
So far against RPI, Madsen has done that. In three games against the Engineers, the sophomore has logged a .974 save percentage and two shutouts. Madsen was even named the Shillelagh Tournament’s Most Valuable Player following a 31-save clean sheet against RPI in the tournament finale.
However, it remains to be seen which Madsen will take the crease this weekend. Will it be the Madsen who has tamed the Engineers all year? The same Madsen who looked outstanding making a career-high 38 saves in the Crimson’s regular season finale against St. Lawrence? Or will it be the Madsen who has struggled with rebound control, particularly on a Clarkson game-winning goal just one night prior?
“He’s been really good for us,” Lloyd said. “I know that he’ll have a team in front of him playing really hard. The season’s on the line, and I think Merrick will definitely step up.”
Regardless of the result, this weekend will mark the final time Harvard’s seniors take the ice at the Bright-Landry Center. With students flocking out of the city for spring break, it remains to be seen what type of environment will await the two sides. But just ask Lloyd—the postseason is still the postseason.
“It may not be the best crowd we’ve had this year, but it’s playoff hockey,” Lloyd said. “There’s going to be no shortage of energy.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.