Friday, September 9, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Harvard

Harvard now has four Hobey Baker Award winners in its history, which is four more than any other ECAC program can claim and more than any other school outside of Minnesota-Duluth (five) and Minnesota (also four). Never mind that Jimmy Vesey's crowning as college hockey's top player came more than a quarter-century after Harvard's (and the ECAC's) last Hobey winner - the plaudit certainly helps re-establish the Crimson to its position as one of college hockey's more storied programs despite the fact that they've now lost eight consecutive NCAA tournament games.

Harvard

Nickname: Crimson
Location: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 1636
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 1 (1989)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2016
Last Frozen Four: 1994
Coach: Ted Donato (13th season)
2015-16 Record: 19-11-4 (12-6-4 ECAC, 3rd place)
Series: Harvard leads, 53-37-7
First Game: December 27, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 12, 2016 (Boston, MA)
Last HU win: March 12, 2016 (Boston, MA)

2016-17 games: December 30, 2016 (Boston, MA); January 13, 2017 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Clay Anderson, sr.; F Luke Esposito, sr.; F Alexander Kerfoot, sr.; F Sean Malone, sr.; F Tyler Moy, sr.; F Devin Tringale, sr.; D Jake Horton, jr.; F Seb Lloyd, jr.; G Merrick Madsen, jr.; D Wiley Sherman, jr.; F Ryan Donato, so.; F Mike Floodstrand, so.; D Jacob Olson, so.; F Lewis Zerter-Gossage, so.; D Adam Fox, fr.; F Colton Kerfoot, fr.; D John Marino, fr.; F Ty Pelton-Byce, fr.

Key losses: F Jimmy Vesey, F Kyle Criscuolo, F Colin Blackwell, D Desmond Bergin, D Brayden Jaw

Previous KYE installments:
Let's get this out of the way first - Harvard has plenty of talent returning, but losing a Hobey Baker winner is rarely easy for any but the most entrenched of the national powers - a fraternity that really doesn't include any ECAC program, let alone the Crimson. Harvard's attack wasn't quite as balanced as Quinnipiac's last year, so a program like the Q is likely to be able to absorb losing a huge scoring star like Sam Anas a bit better. Anas and Vesey undoubtedly helped their cohorts succeed a bit more by drawing the opposition's best defensive efforts whenever they were on the ice, but Harvard simply wasn't getting quite as much out of their other lines as the Bobcats were.

But the qualifier is still important. Harvard does have plenty of talent returning, even if the loss of Vesey and his linemate Criscuolo is going to be a bit tough to swallow. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Alexander Kerfoot, who played on that top line as a set-up man, especially with so many options for pairing off. Malone and Donato both return as 10+ goal scorers from last year, and Esposito had a great season playing alongside Malone and Blackwell as their puck distributor. There are still some very good options offensively for the Crimson, the questions really are how Ted Donato puts them together and how effective they can be without Vesey and Criscuolo helping to open things up for the others.

On defense, Madsen is certainly in the discussion for the top returning goaltender in the league alongside SLU's Kyle Hayton. His 1.75 GAA and .936 save percentage is tops among returning netminders in league play, giving Harvard a huge boost heading into a season where they'll need to retool their attack. Anderson, Sherman, and Horton return as key elements along the blue line, and they add a pair of strong freshmen in Fox and Marino to the mix this season. While Harvard's defense wasn't wildly impressive on the national level last season, coming in 17th at 2.38 GAA as a team, this is one area of their game that shouldn't be a problem at all.

Harvard was very clearly one of the top teams in the ECAC last season - they had a year that in recent decades past would have probably made them far and away the best in the league, but last year was good enough for only third in the final league standings. Nevertheless, the Crimson stormed their way through the ECAC playoffs to the championship game for the second straight year, falling short of their second straight league crown after being downed 4-1 by Quinnipiac. Their NCAA rematch with Beanpot rivals Boston College down the road in Worcester ended with the same score. Both games featured Harvard falling behind 3-0, scoring to break the shutout, and then giving up an empty-netter to seal their fate. Harvard hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1994, when they defeated UNH 7-1 to advance to the Frozen Four.

The five games between RPI and Harvard last year were a study in three different sets. Harvard played to its advantages against a depleted and illness-ravaged RPI squad in the Shillelagh Tournament title game. Jason Kasdorf put on a defensive masterstroke against the Crimson in the two ECAC contests, making an amazing 43 saves as part of a 75-save goaltender's duel between him and Madsen in one of the best 0-0 draws you will ever see, then practically singlehandedly won the game in Boston by making 49 saves on 50 shots. Perhaps more than most, Harvard won't miss Kasdorf's presence in Troy - his injury and departure from the ECAC Quarterfinals helped the Crimson grease the skids a little and overcome RPI with a 13-4 punishment across the two game set, defeating an injured and ineffective Kasdorf on Friday and Cam Hackett, who had taken the loss in South Bend, on Saturday.

This year's RPI-Harvard matchup figures to play better for whichever team is able to better overcome their greater loss, RPI with Kasdorf or Harvard with Vesey. With both league games coming fairly quickly - within a few weeks of each other just after the Christmas break - there are a lot of variables that could play into things. Injured players, even with somewhat minor injuries, could miss both games. The game in Boston especially will be a "return to action" game for both teams after the December layoff.

So while Harvard may now be missing the engine of its offensive success last season, there's still plenty of reason to expect that they'll be a tough out for anyone this year, including RPI.

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