As the Harvard men's hockey team prepares to embark on its centennial campaign, it hopes experience will make the difference between this year and last.
The youngest team in the league last season fought inexperience throughout its campaign (11-18-3, 9-11-2 ECAC). However, this forced its young players to mature into a disciplined, battle tested group.
"Many guys last year gained a lot of experience," said team captain defensemen Jeremiah McCarthy. "It should pay-off now."
Certainly, Harvard has the talent to excel. The only question is if it will exhibit enough consistency to improve upon last year's rocky season.
To turn things around, the Crimson must increase its toughness and be willing to pay the price to dig pucks out of the corners and crash the net each and every shift. Too often last year Harvard failed to maintain its intensity for a full sixty minutes.
All these faults can be partially explained by age.
"Youth leads to mistakes," said coach Ronn Tomassoni. "I think we've learned a great lesson from last year."
Last season's squad--featuring only two seniors and sixteen underclassmen--led Tomassoni to give those youngsters significant ice time. The hope is that the struggles this brought last year's team will payoff this season.
However, while this team is more experienced than the last, it is still very young. A team comprised of predominantly sophomores and juniors does not exactly qualify as a veteran squad. This team still has only four seniors and has also added seven freshmen, many of whom will see significant minutes.
In addition, the Crimson will be hurt by the departure of junior forward Craig MacDonald (six goals, 10 assists) who is taking the year off to play with the Canadian national team.
"Craig is a very talented young man," Tommasoni said. "While his loss hurts, he has a great opportunity to play for his country and he'll come back an even better player next year."
The Crimson still have some lessons to learn. Here's how the team breaks down.
This is clearly the weakest part of the team. Last year, Harvard barely averaged three goals per game. When the team's leading scorer, junior Rob Millar, has only 13 goals on the season, there's a bit of a production problem.
Where the offense will come from this year is still a bit of a mystery.
"There are two ways to generate offense," Tomassoni said. "While its always nice for one or two guys to emerge, you can also have a more balanced attack where everybody contributes. It's too early to tell."
The burden to improve the offense will fall most heavily on a select few players.
Millar obviously must exceed last year's output. He has too much talent to barely reach double digits in goals. To help take full advantage of his skills, he has been moved to center this season.
"Millar will play center because the most completely skilled offensive player should be in the middle," Tomassoni said.
Two seniors, Henry Higdon and Doug Sproule will both be counted upon to add to their four goals from last season. Higdon especially must return to the form of his sophomore year. Junior Craig Adams must increase his production as well.
"Higdon and Sproule really have worked hard in the offseason," McCarthy said. "They really should be sharp."
Whether or not any of these players has a breakthrough season, the Crimson will look for everyone to score goals the old fashioned way.
"We must crash the net and pay the price if we want to score," Tomassoni said.
Look also for the Crimson to utilize its excellent skating ability and for the defensemen to take chances and pinch to help the offense.
The Crimson can also supplement their offense with a better power play. The team scored with the man advantage less than 10 percent of the time last year. This must improve for the team to be successful.
"Again its all about the experience of your personnel," Tommasoni said. "This year we should at least be able to convert at the 20 percent clip."
The offense does not have to win games by itself for the Crimson to have a successful season. Rather, it merely has to score enough goals to come out ahead. Harvard's rock solid defense should help this cause.
The focal point of the defense is captain Jeremiah McCarthy. Undoubtedly the hardest worker on the team, he instills an ethic that permeates throughout all the backliners.
"He is a real leader out there," Sproule said. "Both on the ice and off he commands the respect of everybody."
"He plays at the highest level all the time," Tommasoni said. "Nobody is more dedicated to win."
Geordie Hyland joins McCarthy as the second senior defensemen. These two veterans will be essential to the success of the Harvard defense by providing a steadying influence on three freshman blueliners the team will feature. Tim Stay, Grahm Morel, and Liam McCarthy will all see major playing time this year. All three have played exceptionally well in the preseason and will need to contribute to the team.
In addition, good defensemen make good penalty killers. Harvard should be able to prevent their opponents from clicking with the man advantage especially with the seniors holding the fort.
"Our defense will be very good." Tommasoni said. "I have no worries about this group."
The goaltending situation for Harvard could not be better. The team has not only an exceptional starting goaltender, but also two talented backups. Depth and skill make this the team's strongest position.
Starting goaltender sophomore J.R. Prestifilippo is coming off an outstanding rookie season where he earned the ECAC Rookie of the Year Award with a 3.18 goals against average. He single-handedly kept Harvard in many games last year that could have been blowouts. He has exceptional poise had reflexes in net, and a season of experience in the ECAC pressure cooker can do nothing but help him this year.
With Prestifilippo, the old goaltender's motto holds,"If he see's it, he stops it."
"J.R. is an exceptional goaltender," Tommasoni said. "Not only is he talented, he is very committed and wants to win. He's a leader."
If Prestifilippo ever falters, or becomes injured, Harvard has two strong reserves ready to step in. Junior Mike Ginal returns to back up Prestifilippo once again and the Crimson also added freshman Oliver Jonas from Germany. By all accounts, Jonas shows amazing promise in goal.
The additional maturity should help the Crimson this season. The defects of the team last year were magnified by the competition, as many teams had veteran rosters with senior stars like Todd White of Clarkson, Mike Carter from Colgate, and the Vermont boys: Martin St. Louis, Eric Perrin and Tim Murphy. The effects of graduation should, in turn, magnify Harvard's gains this year.
Yet, one can discuss the advantages of experience forever, but the Crimson can not win unless somebody puts the puck in the back of the net. Harvard clearly has players who can produce--Millar, Higdon, Sproule, Adams--they just need to do it.
These players' output needs to and should improve as they all have rededicated themselves to putting points on the board. Whether or not they do so will decide the ultimate fate of Harvard's season.
The Crimson's defense and Prestifilippo should keep Harvard in most of the games it plays. However, if the back line must play a tight defensive game each night, by the end of the season the team will run out of gas.
Yet, if the team produces offensively then they can go far. Repeating the magnificent run through the playoffs of two years ago is not out of the question.
"We're very optimistic on our chances," Tommasoni said. "We're good in goal and solid on defense. If we can score on a consistent basis, there is no limit to what we can achieve."
THE SCHEDULENov. 7 at Cornell 7:30 p.m.Nov. 8 at Colgate 5 p.m.Nov. 14 PRINCETON 7:30 p.m.Nov. 15 YALE 7 p.m.Nov. 18 at Boston College 7 p.m.Nov. 25 B.U. 7 p.m.Nov. 29 at Brown 7 p.m.Dec. 5 at Clarkson 7:30 p.m.Dec. 6 at St. Lawrence 4 p.m.Dec. 9 BROWN 7 p.m.Dec. 18 at Northeastern 7 p.m.Dec. 27 at Wisconson TBADec. 28 vs. BC/N. Michigan TBAJan. 2 DARTMOUTH 7:30 p.m.Jan. 3 VERMONT 7 p.m.Jan. 9 at Renssalaer 7:30 p.m.Jan. 10 at Union 7 p.m.Feb. 2 Beanpot: B.C. TBAFeb. 6 UNION 7:30 p.m.Feb. 7 RENSSELAER 3 p.m.Feb. 9 Beanpot Final/Cons. TBAFeb. 13 at Princeton 7:30 p.m.Feb. 14 at Yale 7 p.m.Feb. 20 COLGATE 7:30 p.m.Feb. 21 CORNELL 7 p.m.Feb. 27 ST. LAWRENCE 7:30 p.m.Feb. 28 CLARKSON 7 p.m.Mar. 6 at Vermont 7:30 p.m.Mar. 7 at Dartmouth 7:30 p.m