For the Harvard men’s hockey team, the regular season was defined by ups and downs. Frustrating stints of futility negated impressive stretches of winning hockey.
But now it’s mid-March, and there is no longer any room for downs. If the Crimson wishes to uphold what has recently become the norm for Harvard hockey—success in the ECAC playoffs followed by an NCAA Tournament berth—its performance must consistently shine in Lake Placid, N.Y., for Championship Weekend.
“A lot of classes are lucky if they make it to Lake Placid once,” Harvard tri-captain Jake Horton said. “We’ve made it all four times. It became kind of the standard, but that’s a good thing for us to have that standard of excellence for Harvard hockey.”
On Friday night, the No. 4 seed Crimson (15-13-4, 11-8-3 ECAC) will battle No. 3 seed Clarkson (22-9-6, 12-5-5) for a spot in the conference final the following evening. To punch its ticket to the 16-team nationwide tournament for a fourth straight season, Harvard all but needs an ECAC crown. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights—who rank No. 10/8 nationally—are seeking to guarantee their spot in the NCAAs via an automatic conference bid and improve their seeding therein.
By the semifinals of the ECAC playoffs, there are no more “easy-outs.” Despite relative success against Clarkson in the regular season, the Crimson’s upcoming bout with the Golden Knights will prove to be its most trying competition yet.
“The two times we played Clarkson, we just understood how good of a team they were and how big the challenge was going to be,” Horton said. “Obviously they’re a great team, and they’re going to give us a good challenge, but that’s just going to bring out the best in us as well.”
Horton and company will look to the regular season series when preparing for Clarkson. The first meeting between the two programs came during Harvard’s “J-term,” when school is not in session but hockey certainly is. The exciting affair ended in a 6-6 draw with the Golden Knights. The Crimson was pleased with its play but felt that a win was within reach.
“They have depth up front, they have size, they have speed, they have skill, they have a go-to line offensively, [and] a goaltender who has been outstanding throughout the year,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 before jokingly reflecting on the January matchup. “The first game we played…pretty much went against everything I just said.”
A month later, the two teams clashed again. The Crimson skated to a 5-2 victory despite lacking junior forward Ryan Donato—the Boston Bruins prospect was in Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics. The senior night matchup ironically featured goals from five underclassmen, who powered the team to victory.
Harvard’s 1-0-1 regular-season mark against Clarkson should not downplay the versatile talent that the top-10 opponent brings to the rink. As with many teams, the Golden Knights’ success starts in the crease, where sophomore Jake Kielly (21-9-6, 1.79 GAA, .931 SV%) has dominated throughout the season.
Part of the 6’2” backstop’s success is attributable to the players in front of him. On the blue line, senior Kelly Summers (6–23—29) sets his group’s pace in assists and was recently named a First Team All-ECAC selection. Summers’ classmate and fellow defenseman Terrance Amorosa (7–19—26) earned a spot on the all-conference Second Team.
Up front, a trio of sophomore forwards leads the way for Clarkson, combining for 110 points. Sheldon Rempal (22–21—43) sits atop his team in the majority of offensive categories and was a First Team all-league player this season. Nico Sturm (14–22—36), an all-conference Third Team nominee in his own right, and Devin Brosseau (10–21—31) follow closely behind.
The Crimson held these formidable Golden Knights in check during the teams’ dramatic tie back in January, as the three attackers were held off the scoresheet and totaled a minus-nine rating between them. Instead, steady contributor and ECAC All-Rookie forward Jack Jacome was the star that night (2–1—3). The sophomore trio did some damage in the mid-February contest, accounting for both Clarkson goals, but the result still went in Harvard’s favor.
“Just getting traffic in front of the goalie, getting some second-chance opportunities was big for us in our success against them,” said Crimson sophomore blue-liner Adam Fox. “And, you know, kind of taking away the time and space of some of their top guys. Obviously it’s a bigger sheet out here in [Lake] Placid, but doing the same things will help us.”
The Calgary Flames prospect is alluding to the larger, Olympic-size ice sheet in Lake Placid’s Herb Brooks Arena. Presumably, more time and space for puck-carriers is conducive to offense-friendly gameplay. Fox, whose puck skills and skating ability bode well for such an environment, expressed excitement regarding the opportunity to play on the wider surface.
In addition to implementing some of its strategic successes over Clarkson from the regular season, Harvard can counterbalance much of the opposition’s skill with talent of its own. The Cantabrigians, after all, boast this year’s ECAC Player of the Year in Donato (26–15—41). But the nation’s leader in goals per game (0.93) is hardly the extent of the Crimson’s dynamism.
A young corps of forwards provides speed and creativity alongside Donato. Two puck-moving defensemen, freshman Reilly Walsh (6–12–18) and sophomore Adam Fox (6–21—27), provide firepower from the back end. Both rearguards earned ECAC accolades at the conclusion of the regular season—Walsh was an All-Rookie selection, and Fox made the all-conference First Team. Additionally, the shut-down tandem of sophomore John Marino (2–14—16) and senior Wiley Sherman (3–4—7) anchors the blue line on a more defensive note.
Ultimately, the keystone for Harvard is—and has been for some time—tri-captain goalie Merrick Madsen. The senior net-minder (10-9-3, 2.17 GAA, .921 SV%) seems to have finally solidified his role at the go-to between the pipes after facing some healthy pressure from junior backup Michael Lackey throughout the campaign.
Lurking beneath the surface of Friday’s semifinal bout is the fact that, in the event of a Crimson loss, Harvard’s seniors will have played their final game for their alma mater. This daunting reality has come on strong since the regular season ended.
“It’s kind of an unspoken uneasiness, where you come in and you don’t know if it’s going to be the last [time],” Horton reflected. “All those things have potential to be the last one…. Nobody wants to address it, but everybody is obviously aware of it, and it’s something that’s pretty scary. But to be honest, that’s something that creates desperation.”
After the Crimson dropped game one to Dartmouth in last week’s best-of-three quarterfinal series, the season became one grand do-or-die situation. The silver lining, of course, is that the team is playing with as much urgency as it has all season.
“Our season right now is lose-and-it’s-over,” Fox noted. “Guys in the room want to win. We want to do it for the seniors who don’t have another chance at it after this year. We have a lot of camaraderie in the room, and it kind of helps us play and helps motivate us to want to keep our season going.”
Harvard will channel this motivation as it looks to continue the quest for its second consecutive Whitelaw Cup—the formal name of the ECAC playoff title—and its third in four years. During these four years, the class of 2018 has played on some of the Crimson’s most talented teams in recent memory and added its own gritty, hard-working attitude to the program’s culture.
Horton, who has played in every contest during his time at Harvard, embodies the perseverance shown by this senior corps. The centerman heads into the Clarkson tilt with 139 games under his belt, the new program record after he surpassed Tom Cavanagh ’05 during the Dartmouth series last week.
Records aside, one thing is certain: both opponents have plenty of inspiration to come out strong on Friday night. Clarkson is looking to avenge disappointing results from the regular season and snuff the NCAA Tournament hopes of a threatening conference foe. Harvard will skate to keep its season alive and its seniors in uniform.
The winner of Friday’s afternoon affair between No. 1 seed Cornell and No. 7 seed Princeton will be waiting for the victor of the Crimson-Golden Knights matchup. The ECAC finale will take place the following night.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.