Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Harvard

The next installment of "Know Your Enemy" focuses on the most mortal enemy of no fewer than five ECAC teams. If there's one eternal truth, it's that a tradition of winning can breed contempt, and there's no Ivy League team with a target on its back more frequently than Harvard. The Engineers and the Crimson may not share Ivy hatred with each other, but they've been involved in their share of interesting matchups in the distant and recent past.

Harvard
Nickname: Crimson
Location: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 1636
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 1 (1989)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2006
Last Frozen Four: 1994
Coach: Ted Donato (7th season)
2009-10 Record: 9-21-3 (7-12-3 ECAC, 9th place)
Series: Harvard leads, 45-34-3
First Game: December 27, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 12, 2010 (Boston, MA)
Last HU win: November 4, 2008 (Boston, MA)

2010-11 games: November 6, 2010 (Boston, MA); January 21, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Michael Biega, sr.; F Alex Killorn, jr.; F Conor Morrison, so.; F Tom O'Regan, fr.; D Chris Huxley, sr.; D Ryan Grimshaw, jr.; D Danny Biega, so.

Key losses: F Louis Leblanc, F Doug Rogers, D Alex Biega, D Chad Morin

The ECAC is home to some of the oldest programs in the nation, but there's only one that can claim to be as old has Harvard.

As a humorous line on the Harvard website goes, Harvard hockey dates back to just before the war - the Spanish-American War. On January 19, 1898, Harvard played Brown on a rink built on Boston's Franklin Field in the very first college hockey game in the northeast. Two years later, the Harvard-Yale rivalry was kindled on ice for the first time at New York City's renowned St. Nicholas Rink.

Shortly thereafter, the Crimson became the first true giant of college hockey. After taking down MIT to start the 1903 season, Harvard rattled off 22 straight victories over the course of six seasons to set the early standard for long winning streaks. Harvard's first coach, Alfred Winsor, coached for 15 years and finished with an impressive record of 124-29.

After shuttering the program for a season in 1918 due to World War I, the Crimson were back the following year. In 1923, an important innovation in hockey tactics came out of Cambridge when coach William Clafin began changing all of his forwards at the same time instead of just having individual players come off. We know this today as the "line change" and it quickly became a basic tenet of hockey play.

The Crimson put some solid teams on the ice in the 1930s, but had to close the program down again in 1943 due to World War II. The team was not immediately successful upon returning in 1946, due in part to Dartmouth's dominance, but Harvard would establish themselves as one of the top hockey programs in the country during the NCAA Championship era over the next four decades under two legendary coaches - Ralph "Cooney" Weiland and Bill Cleary.

After winning the first ever Beanpot in 1952, Weiland made the Crimson one of the top teams in the East in the mid to late 1950s, guiding Harvard to their first three NCAA tournament appearances in 1955, 1957, and 1958. When the Ivy League championship was first officially established in 1954, it was Harvard that dominated the competition under Weiland, winning the first five titles from 1954 to 1958, and winning another three in a row from 1961 to 1963.

The Ivy League teams became a part of the original ECAC in 1962, and Harvard would skate away with the ECAC regular season and tournament championships in the league's second season in existence, led by team captain Tim Taylor, who would go on to become a legendary coach himself at rival Yale.

Weiland would leave after leading the Crimson to two more NCAA tournament appearances in 1969 and 1971, but his replacement, Bill Cleary, would largely pick up where he left off. The Crimson would win the ECAC regular season in 1973 and 1975, with NCAA tournament berths in '74 and '75. That made seven NCAA appearances for Harvard during an era where only four teams made the tournament, but they still had yet to see a national championship game.

That would eventually change. After the Crimson struggled through the late 1970s, Cleary had Harvard back in the NCAAs in 1982, and in 1983, with an ECAC title in their pocket, the Crimson finally broke through to play in the national championship game, falling to Wisconsin 6-2. It was a bitter defeat, but it was the start of what has, to date, been the height of Harvard's power in college hockey throughout the 1980s. After a losing record the following season, Cleary and the Crimson appeared in five consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1985 to 1989, winning four consecutive ECAC regular season crowns from '86 to '89, and made two more appearances in the national championship game, losing to Michigan State 6-5 in 1986 before finally reaching the top of the college hockey world in 1989 when Ed Krayer scored in overtime to beat what many fans still consider the greatest Minnesota team of all time and win the national championship, 4-3.

Harvard's domination of the 1980s extended beyond the ECAC and the NCAA tournament as well. Three different Crimson players won the Hobey Baker Award during the decade - Mark Fusco in 1983, his brother Scott Fusco in 1986, and Lane MacDonald in 1989 - and Harvard claimed at least a share of every Ivy League championship from 1982 to 1990. Oddly, Harvard's dominance did not extend to the Beanpot tournament, which they only won twice during the decade (1981 and 1989) in their only two Beanpot championship appearances.

Cleary's run as head coach would end in 1990 when he became the Director of Athletics at Harvard. He was replaced by RPI graduate Ronn Tomassoni, a long time assistant. At first, the Crimson did fairly well under Tomassoni. He guided Harvard to three consecutive regular season titles from 1992 to 1994, the ECAC championship in 1994 (beating his alma mater in the title game), and NCAA appearances in 1993 and 1994, the latter of which included an appearance in the Frozen Four, where the Crimson lost to eventual champions Lake Superior State in overtime. But that would be the last winning season under Tomassoni, who would stay on until 1999, when he would be replaced by Mark Mazzoleni.

Under Mazzoleni, Harvard would become a feared team in March, often despite playing .500 hockey during the season. From 2002 to 2006, Harvard would reach in the ECAC title game every season, winning the title in the even numbered years (and facing Cornell in each game with the exception of 2004) and advancing to the NCAA tournament in each of those five consecutive seasons. But even after a better than average 2003 season, the 2004 ECAC title was not enough for Mazzoleni to keep his job, and he was replaced by an alum with loads of NHL experience and a national championship ring to boot, Ted Donato.

Donato was the coach behind the Crimson's last ECAC title in 2006 - his second season as coach - but things have generally been going downhill in Cambridge ever since. The Crimson's one winning season since then, 2008, featured a sixth title game appearance in seven seasons, but in 2009 and 2010, Harvard finished the season without reaching 10 wins for the first times since 1979 and 1980. Since Cleary's departure in 1990, the Crimson have won only four Ivy League crowns.

That's not to say Harvard hasn't had its share of talent in the last few years, but some important names have left - most notably, Alex Biega's graduation and one of last year's freshman phenoms, Louis Leblanc, leaving to pursue his professional career. Leblanc led the Crimson in scoring last season with only 23 points, which underscores the problems that Harvard had in putting the puck in the net. They'll need major contributions from Michael Biega, Killorn, and Morrison, who had 22, 20, and 18 points respectively last season, if they are going to snap back.

Defensively, Harvard boasts some decent talent in Huxley, Grimshaw, and Danny Biega (who was drafted in the 3rd round of the NHL draft this year), but that didn't translate to keeping the puck out of the net as frequently as they needed it last year. Kyle Richter is a former Dryden Award winner as the top goaltender in the ECAC (2008), but his play last season, returning from an academic dismissal, was a far cry from his sophomore year as he turned in a 3.30 GAA and .908 save percentage. He split time in net with Ryan Carroll, who was only marginally better. Both will be seniors this season.

The bottom line for Harvard is that they need a better effort all around in order to avoid missing the 10-win mark for the third straight season (which hasn't happened since before Weiland was the coach). They need more offense despite losing some of their top offensive talents. They need more defense despite having a talented defensive corps in front of their goaltenders. If there's one thing out there to make Ted Donato happy heading into the season, it's that expectations are going to be pretty low for Harvard, which will make any level of success look good. That's probably minor consolation, though.

RPI lucks out on the schedule, as well. Due to the Ivy League rules on season length, the game in Boston between the Engineers and the Crimson will only be Harvard's second competitive game of the season (their first coming the night before against Union), while RPI will have played eight games over the course of a month. They'll be much closer to the mid-season stride than Harvard.

The Engineers are currently on a three-game winning streak against Harvard - and if they play to potential against them again this season, there's not much reason to suspect that the streak can't be extended.

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