Going into the ECAC’s final weekend, all but one of the conference’s tournament slots have been secured. Only Rensselaer and Harvard are left to compete for the remaining spot.
The Crimson (4-18-5 overall, 4-12-4 ECAC), who have won the ECAC tournament six times since 1999, need help. A lot of help.
RPI can clinch the eighth seed with a single point. The Engineers, however, have a brutal draw to end the season, with matchups on the road at Quinnipiac and Princeton, both of whom are fighting for seeding themselves.
So there’s a chance.
But if Harvard is going to keep its streak of conference tournament appearances alive, they have to go through a familiar foe.
After years of finishing behind Harvard, Yale (10-13-4 overall, 8-10-2 ECAC) finally has a leg up on the Crimson this season. And the Bulldogs would love nothing more than to send their northern rivals home for the year.
College women’s hockey in the United States was born in the Ivy League. In 1964, Brown coach Jim Fullerton snuck a well-disguised Nancy Schieffelin into a men’s practice to show how well a woman could play. Brown fielded the country’s first women’s college team, the Pembroke Pandas, in 1966.
The Yale women’s hockey team’s first game was in 1975 against Choate-Rosemary Hall. Its first game as a varsity team was held in 1977.
A year later, Harvard fielded a program. The Crimson’s second-ever game was a 2-1 loss to Yale. Harvard won only six games that year, but one was a 3-2 victory against the Bulldogs.
The Crimson have had the upper hand in the rivalry for a long time, particularly since coach Katey Stone took the helm in 1994-95. Since then, until this season, Harvard has never finished with a worse overall record than Yale.
The teams have seen a lot of each other in the past few years. In addition to their annual two-game conference home-and-home, Harvard knocked Yale out of the ECAC conference tournament in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.
2016-17 has been a dreadful season for Harvard; the worst of coach Stone’s tenure in Cambridge (2016-17 will be the first time in 19 years that the Crimson finish worse than .500). Despite returning 20-goal scorer Sydney Daniels, senior defender Briana Mastel, and others, talent departures over the past two seasons have been too much to overcome.
Yale, on the other hand, is having one of the better campaigns of coach Joakim Flygh’s time in New Haven. The Bulldogs have already matched last year’s win total and nicked a 3-2 win against the rival Crimson on Jan. 21.
That game was a barnburner, with the Bulldogs nearly squandering a 3-0 lead in front of a raucous home crowd at Ingalls Rink.
“I think any time any sport competes versus Yale there’s great energy, there’s high competitiveness, it’s pretty intense, and, you know, it’s the same way in hockey,” Coach Stone said after the game.
“I think also that being the oldest rival that Yale has in any sport, I think it’s a big deal,” Flygh said. “It’s something [the players] look forward to ... It means a lot for the kids, and I know they get up for it. You don’t need to worry about a kid showing that day with energy and wanting to play hard and all those things.”
Before the victory in January, Yale had not won a game against Harvard since February 2014. The Bulldogs actually got two wins that year, which were their first since November 2005.
“I think going into it everyone always hypes up Yale-Harvard in every sport, and I think that’s what I find cool, is that it’s not just with hockey, it’s every sport. But I don’t think you truly understand the rivalry until you actually play in it and play for it,” Bulldog senior captain Krista Yip-Chuck said.
Fitting, then, that the Crimson’s opportunity to salvage their season runs through the Bulldogs.
“I feel like whenever we play Yale there’s a sense of feeling a part of tradition and history that comes along with it,” Daniels said. “So every time you get to play against them, it’s a special feeling. It almost feels like more than just a game. So it’s awesome.”
“I think there’s also a really big respect we have for both of our programs,” Yip-Chuck said. “I know that both Yale and Harvard are pitted to hate each other, but we totally respect their skill and how they play the game of hockey. It’s really fun to play them, that’s for sure.”
If the game at Ingalls was any indication, Friday’s face-off at Bright-Landry should be electric.
“Women’s hockey players knock themselves out, and sometimes it’s pretty sparse in the crowd, so to play in front of this kind of atmosphere, with the band, and all the energy in the building, is awesome. I think it’s great for everybody. And it’s, again, they’ve got a good team, and it’s fun,” Coach Stone said after the game in January.
“It’s a lot of fun, you know what I mean?” Mastel said. “In this day and age, you’re just, you’re looking to have a good time and you’re looking to compete, and that’s what we get every time we play Yale. We just get competitive games start to finish, all 60 minutes, sometimes all 80 minutes, or 100 minutes, depending on how far we want to go. But they always give us their best, and we always want to give them their best, so it’s just a really fun rivalry to be a part of.”
Old friends, together at the end.