Harvard hockey coach Ted Donato knows what it feels like to win championships. The former Boston Bruin is a direct link to the Crimson's glory days, when Donato was a forward on Harvard's 1989 NCAA championship squad that beat Minnesota, 4-3, in overtime. And he wants his players to know that same sense of accomplishment.
This year, the 19th-ranked Crimson (12-9-11) are a classic bubble team, needing to win the ECAC championships in Atlantic City, N.J., this weekend to earn an NCAA bid. To get to the league finals, Harvard will have to go through powerhouse Cornell (17-7-7), which has been in each of the last three ECAC championship games, winning in 2010.
"Any time you play a Mike Schafer-coached Cornell team, you know you're going to get a team with great discipline, great attention to detail, usually outstanding goaltending -- and there's no difference in that this year -- and excellent special teams," said Donato. "There's a reason they've been in this final four very often, and we're excited about the opportunity, but we also recognize that we have to elevate our game against an excellent Cornell team."
Cornell is on top of its game, going 6-1-3 since the start of February, and shaking off that one loss -- a 2-1 overtime loss to RPI in the regular-season finale -- to sweep Dartmouth in the quarterfinals. Schafer said the team is playing even better than it was in the first half of the season, when the Big Red strung together five straight home shutouts. Even more of a concern for Harvard is that Schafer thinks his Cornell squad has yet to play its best hockey.
"I don't believe we've put a game together yet this year when we've had all four lines contributing offensively," he said. "It's always been two lines, or a good game with three lines, but we're still searching for that great game when we get all four lines creating scoring chances and playing well defensively. And get all six defensemen moving pucks on a consistent basis. All coaches are looking for that, and we're no different."
Harvard, however, is battle-tested, with a knack for playing teams close. Of the team's 32 games to date, only five have been decided by more than two goals. They've gone 0-1-1 against the Big Red, losing 4-2 at home in November and tying 2-2 on Cornell's sheet in Ithaca on Jan. 21. But the 3rd-seeded Crimson continue to play with an edge, perhaps still feeling the sting of the preseason media polls that had them picked to finish 12th in the league.
"The guys in our locker room didn't feel the way the media had felt. We finished the season pretty strongly last year," said Donato, referring to a season that ended one goal shy of a semifinal appearance following a great late-season run. "We battled some injuries this year. We had an inordinate number of major injuries, and we fought through it. We balanced trying to work in a couple of goalies who really didn't have any experience at the college level.
"But there's no question that there was a little bit of a chip on our shoulder for where we got picked," he said. "The guys had the confidence; we knew we had some excellent hockey players in our room, and I think we really tried all season to prove it to everybody."
A big part of Harvard's success -- in addition to senior Alex Killorn, and juniors Alex Fallstrom, Danny Biega and Croatian sensation David Valek -- lies with the Crimson's potent power play, which led the league this season (27 percent, with 24 goals in 89 attempts). That has Schafer's attention.
"They've done a great job on their power play, one of the top power plays in the country," said Schafer. "You've got to be disciplined in your game and not take penalties, and give them limited opportunities. I think we've done a pretty good job of that over the year. We've been one of the least-penalized teams in the country."
If there's one glaring difference between the teams, it's in goal. Both have young netminders, but Cornell's Andy Iles (2.08 GAA, .920 save percentage) has carried the load for the Big Red all year and is one of the league's three finalists for the Ken Dryden Award. By comparison, Harvard's Raphael Girard (2.25 GAA, .932 save percentage) blossomed late, wresting the starting job from freshman Steve Michalek and then shutting down opponents in the stretch run. Donato said the sophomore from Quebec was instrumental in Harvard's 2-games-to-1 quarterfinal victory over Yale.
"Raphael was outstanding over the weekend," said Donato. "And I think it's really added a level of confidence to our team moving forward."