Sophomore defenseman Patrick McNally and the No. 14 Harvard men’s hockey team welcome No. 8 Union and RPI to Bright Hockey Center this weekend. Friday night’s match-up with the defending ECAC champion Dutchmen is the first meeting between the two teams since Union beat the Crimson in the conference championship game last year.
After a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Yale last Saturday, the No. 14 Harvard men’s hockey is not going to catch a break this week. The Crimson (2-1-0, 1-1-0 ECAC) will resume home ECAC play against No. 8 Union Friday evening before hosting Rensselaer on Saturday.
The Dutchmen (5-1-1, 2-0-0 ECAC) are coming off their program’s first ECAC tournament championship and NCAA Frozen Four appearance. This year, Union topped both the ECAC coaches’ and media preseason polls and is the only ECAC team to receive a first-place vote in the most recent national rankings.
Harvard went 0-2-1 against Union last season. The Dutchmen earned a 2-0 victory in Harvard’s first outdoor game at Fenway on January 13, snapping the Crimson’s streak of 18 straight games with a power-play goal. And in Harvard’s last game of the 2011-12 season, Union edged the Crimson, 3-1, in the ECAC Championship final on St. Patrick’s Day.
On Friday, Harvard skaters will have a difficult time putting pucks past 2012 Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick, who led all ECAC goaltenders in save percentage and goals against average as a sophomore last season.
2012 NHL draft picks Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia) and Tim Boyle (Ottawa) command the Union blue line to buttress one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. On offense, senior forwards Kyle Bodie and Wayne Simpson lead the Dutchmen with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“[Crimson coach Ted Donato ’91] is telling us they kind of play like Yale, so they’re going to be pinching down and putting a lot of pressure on us in our own zone,” freshman Kyle Criscuolo said. “We’re going to try to change some things this week in practice and hopefully get the puck into their end instead of playing in our own D-zone for most of the game.”
RPI (1-3-2, 0-2-0 ECAC) enters this season with lower outside expectations than Union. The Engineers ranked eighth and ninth in the ECAC coaches’ and media polls, respectively, and are hoping to improve upon last year’s 10th-place finish in the 12-team conference.
But Harvard is not about to underestimate RPI. Both of the Crimson’s 2011-12 games versus the Engineers ended in 2-2 draws.
“RPI is obviously a good team as well [as Union]. They hit hard, [and] they pressure as well,” sophomore defenseman Patrick McNally said. “So it will be very similar styles of play that you will see this weekend.”
On Saturday, Harvard will look to shut down sophomore forwards Jacob Laliberte and Matt Neal, who have led Engineer scorers so far this season with 10 and nine points, respectively. In addition, senior defenseman Nick Bailen, who ranked second among RPI scorers last season, is a strong presence for the Engineers on both sides of the rink.
Union and RPI met last Friday and Saturday in a home-at-home series as the Dutchmen soundly defeated its upstate New York rival at home, 7-3, after edging RPI, 4-2, on the road. Union has outscored opponents 31-15 through seven games; RPI has been outscored 16-21 through six.
The Crimson freshmen continue to impress as Criscuolo succeeded classmate Jimmy Vesey as ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Week. The class of 2016 entered the season as the ECAC’s top-rated recruiting class.
“Vesey getting rookie of the week was great for him, and it’s just great to get some recognition for our class, hopefully trying to live up to some hype,” Criscuolo said.
Criscuolo tallied his first collegiate goal and assist versus Brown last Friday before scoring Harvard’s sole goal versus Yale. Vesey leads the Crimson in scoring with two goals and two assists.
Following the Yale loss, Donato praised Criscuolo, freshman Brian Hart and sophomore Tommy O’Regan as Harvard’s best line of the weekend.
“We all play different styles,” Criscuolo said of his line. “[Hart] is obviously bigger, can play well in the corners and can shoot the puck a little bit. [O’Regan] is really creative and is good along the walls. Together, I think we mesh really well.”
While the Crimson’s young players have provided Harvard a boost, Donato will be looking for increased production from the Crimson’s veterans this weekend.
“Sure, the freshmen looked good, but in games like this, you’ve got to really live on how your seniors and older guys perform,” Donato said after Saturday’s loss to the Bulldogs.
Still early in the season, Harvard will hope to iron out the wrinkles in its game as it looks to pick up some more points in the ECAC standings.
“We’re just going to try to have a good week of practice [and] get our timing down,” Hart said.