In a game that has been sold-out for days, the Crimson lineup will look significantly different tonight in Vermont than it did against the Bears. Sophomore goaltender John Daigneau earns the start, junior defenseman Noah Welch is out because of a coach’s decision and junior defenseman Ryan Lannon is back in the lineup after serving a one-game suspension stemming from last year’s season finale against BU.
Welch and junior goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris are both expected to play Saturday.
No matter who is playing defense or in goal, however, they have a big responsibility to improve Harvard’s play in its own zone.
“We’ve got to have a better overall commitment to playing team defense all over the ice because I don’t think we did that worth a darn on Saturday,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “We worked a lot on that this week in practice, our defensive zone coverage and forecheck. We want to play a pressure game, and that’s difficult to do if you’re not moving. [Against Brown], we got caught all night halfway between things, and we ended up losing.”
Mazzoleni also plans to shuffle his forward lines, tentatively slating assistant captain Rob Fried on the top line with senior Tim Pettit and junior Tom Cavanagh, and moving assistant captain Tyler Kolarik to a unit with senior Kenny Turano and junior Brendan Bernakevitch.
To avoid falling to 0-2 for the first time in Mazzoleni’s tenure, the Crimson needs to improve its offense, which mustered only 20 shots on goal against Brown. Tonight, Harvard’s skaters will square off with Catamounts goaltender Travis Russell for the first time since peppering him with 56 shots in a 4-2 win last November. Russell was a backup for much of last season, but his summer improvement and play so far this season has impressed new coach Kevin Sneddon ’92 enough to become Vermont’s No. 1 goaltender.
“He’s played fabulous for us,” Sneddon said.
But despite Russell’s improved play, Sneddon knows his team (0-3-2, 0-0-0 ECAC) will be challenged by Harvard’s size and speed. In four games last year, the Crimson outscored the Catamounts, 18-7. Part of Vermont’s plan will be to rely on its improved forward lines, led by captain Jeff Miles.
“I think we have some very dynamic skaters up front,” Sneddon said. “We’re going to have to use our speed to try and counter [Harvard’s] size.
“We have a ton of respect for Harvard. We know they’re going to play with fire after their opening loss to Brown. We’re fully prepared for the intensity they bring.”
For his part, Mazzoleni is less focused on strategizing for his upcoming opponents than improving his team’s intensity and on-ice discipline.
“We’re focusing on ourselves,” Mazzoleni said. “Let’s face it—they’ve got a whole new team up there [at Vermont]...and we just have to be ready to take care of our own business. It doesn’t matter what they do, just like it didn’t matter what Brown did, if we aren’t ready to go.”
Looming large after tonight’s game is Saturday’s contest against Dartmouth (1-0-0, 0-0-0). Though the Big Green finished third in the ECAC last season, right behind Harvard, the Crimson defeated the Big Green in both regular-season matchups, as well as in the ECAC semifinals.
In this year’s preseason polls, Dartmouth was tabbed for another third place finish, but it is always a dangerous team, led by dynamic forwards Lee Stempniak and Hugh Jessiman. Last year, the pair tallied 49 and 47 points, respectively, and Big Green coach Bob Gaudet usually sticks them on the same line, creating a top unit that Harvard’s defense will have to work hard to control.
While Stempniak is a forward of average build who relies on speed, Jessiman is a 6’5 beast along the boards who is also able to clog the middle. In last year’s games against the Big Green, Welch often took the lead in matching Jessiman’s physical play, something he will be expected to continue when he returns to the Harvard lineup on Saturday.
Mazzoleni believes the key to success against Dartmouth hinges less on controlling Stempniak and Jessiman and more on limiting mistakes, like the penalties which gave Brown two five-on-three advantages—and one goal—in the season-opener.
“We have to pay attention to our own business, because if we don’t, we’re very beatable,” Mazzoleni said. “It’s not like we’re the Montreal Canadiens. We have skilled players, but I’d bet they have as many skilled players as we do. At times our kids forget, you’ve got to get it done with hard work. Take a look at what Brown did to us last weekend.”
And a look at that eminently forgettable performance is, Mazzoleni hopes, all the motivation his team needs on its first road trip of the season.
“If I have to motivate nine seniors and eight juniors, then we’re in trouble,” he said. “I talk about it all the time with them. Either they buy into it and do it, or they don’t. If they buy into it, they could be a pretty good team.”
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at email@example.com.