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Thursday, March 8, 2012
Harvard hosts Yale in ECAC hockey tourney

By Brion O'Connor

There are no draws in playoff hockey. There are only winners and losers. But Harvard's 11 ties this season not only set a new NCAA record, but they also allowed the Crimson to play a fair amount of extra hockey with points on the line. That's playoff-style hockey, and the Crimson will need that edge Friday when they take on Yale, a team with solid playoff experience.

"The amount of overtime games we've played and the amount of ties we've had -- obviously there are no ties in the playoffs -- but just the experience of playing overtime hockey for almost 40 percent of our season has really tested us under fire," said Harvard coach Ted Donato this week. "That should be helpful to us as these games get into tight affairs that could very well head into overtime."

In this ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series, third-seeded Harvard (10-8-11; 8-5-9 ECAC) welcomes a Yale squad (15-14-3; 10-10-2 ECAC) squad that humbled the Crimson, 7-1, on Feb. 18. However, Donato's troops regrouped, and won their last two matches (4-1 over St. Lawrence, and 3-2 against Clarkson) to preserve a first-round bye and home ice.

Throughout the season, Harvard has shown a knack for surrendering early leads, and fighting back. The Crimson has trailed in 24 games, but rallied to win or tie 17 of those contests (7-7-10). One of those was a 4-3 win at home against Yale, when the Bulldogs held a 2-1 lead after the first period.

The Crimson also have a lethal power play (27.8 percent efficiency, second in the country), which means the Bulldogs will take penalties at their own peril. In goal, Crimson sophomore Raphael Girard supplanted standout freshman Steve Michalek as Donato's go-to guy over Harvard's final four games.

"Both guys have played well," said the Harvard coach. "This is a new season, and both guys will not have had any playoff experience. But we're very confident that we'll get excellent goaltending."

As befits a team that set the NCAA record for ties in a season, the Crimson show a propensity for balancing their scoring (2.97 goals a game) against their defending (allowing 2.97 goals a game). Yale, meanwhile, is the more prolific squad, scoring at a clip of 3.62 goals a game. On defense, they're giving up 2.75 goals, so statistically speaking, they could be a handful for the Crimson.

"They're a talented team," said Donato, a finalists for ECAC Coach of the Year honors along with Union's Rick Bennett and Clarkson's Casey Jones. "Up front, their forwards are as dangerous as there is in our league. They bring in one of the top players in our league -- Brian O'Neil (21 goals, 24 assists) -- who has been outstanding for his whole career at Yale.

"They've had some ups and downs, but they're as hot as anybody coming down the stretch," he said. "We know we'll have to play our best hockey to advance. And to have a chance to play against the team that's won it the last two years, and play them at home, is a great opportunity, and a great challenge as well."

The Bulldogs hit a bit of a tailspin in the dead of winter, going 2-7-1 between Jan. 14 and Feb. 11. However, Keith Allain's crew finished the season on an upswing, going 3-0-1 over its last four games, and then knocked out Princeton, 2 games to 1, in the ECAC's opening round of playoffs last weekend.

This weekend's winner advances the league semifinals, being held at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. And if the Crimson, currently sitting in 21st place in the PairWise rankings, hope to match their basketball peers and make it to the NCAAs, they'll have to run the table and capture the ECAC title.

"Anytime you hope to advance in the playoffs and hope to make a run to win a league championship, you need your best players to step up," said Donato. "For us, both Alex Killorn (18 goals, 18 assists) and Danny Biega (8 goals, 22 assists on defense) have had huge seasons for us, and are really very big parts being able to secure home ice and a bye. We'll need them to be at the top of their game, leading the charge, for us to continue and to advance."