For the Harvard men’s hockey team, November has been ugly. To start the 1-5-1 month, the squad fell to Ivy League rival Yale. Shortly thereafter, the Crimson hit the road for a record nine-game stretch featuring competitive tilts, both in- and out-of-conference.
Along this journey, Harvard (2-5-1, 2-3-0 ECAC) suffered overtime defeats to Cornell and Minnesota in raucous barns and put forth a disappointing offensive effort against a lockdown Colgate team.
“We believe we could’ve performed better stats- and standings-wise,” junior forward Ryan Donato said, reflecting on the previous few weeks. “One of the best games we’ve played all year was against Cornell…. Obviously it wasn’t the way we wanted to end it, but that just left us with the feeling that this is how we know we can play. We know we can play with top teams.”
Emerging from the rubble is a humbled group of Crimson icemen with lines vastly different from opening night in late October—coach Ted Donato ’91 and his staff were far from pleased with the team’s results and needed to shake things up.
“The coaches were done with losing games,” Donato said. “Obviously, it’s a bitter feeling knowing that what you thought were your top lines didn’t perform. Now that we kind of jumbled the lines up a little bit and found a gel with these guys that we’re playing with, hopefully we’ll find success.”
Now, however, things are trending up—or at the very least, they aren’t trending down. Harvard’s offense, which entered last Friday’s matchup at Boston College among the NCAA’s bottom 10 teams in goals per game (2.29), experienced a breakthrough that afternoon. A 4-4 tie with the Eagles, while technically not a standings win, was in many ways still a victory, as an end to the turbulent month of November is in sight for the Crimson squad.
New line pairings, especially up front, are starting to click, and freshmen are rising to the challenge of extra ice time. Rookies Henry Bowlby and Jack Badini, in particular, are relishing their new roles. Bowlby has three points in four games since coach Donato bumped him up to the top forward trio, while Badini picked up his first career multi-point performance (1 goal, 2 assists) in his first game centering the second line.
“It definitely helps playing with [Ryan Donato] and Lewis [Zerter-Gossage],” a modest Bowlby said. “They’re great linemates, and I’m definitely, as a young player, trying to take notes from them.”
For Harvard, the road to a winning record ideally begins this weekend. The Crimson embarks on its least busy month of the schedule—just four games are slotted for December—with a pair of ECAC contests featuring Quinnipiac on Friday and Princeton the following night.
“I think this weekend with Quinnipiac and Princeton is a huge weekend for us to kind of end [the semester] on a good note,” Donato said. “I think our team’s really pulling together now and I think we’re really going to start hitting our full potential coming after that first semester.”
The weekend back-to-back marks the first time in four weeks that Harvard will not play a currently ranked opponent. Nevertheless, the Crimson’s lackluster record to this point has raised the stakes for all 21 remaining regular season games on the schedule.
“Every night is a night that you have to get up for, no matter who you’re playing,” said Donato. “Especially now with our record, every little game is going to matter, and I think that just being consistent is the big message.”
Like coach Donato’s squad, Friday’s foe is similarly discontent with its current record. The Bobcats (6-7-1, 3-4-0) opened the 2017-2018 campaign at 3-1-1 after a pair of victories over now-No. 12 Northeastern. Also like Harvard, however, Quinnipiac went on to suffer a four-game losing streak that started with a winless weekend against Cornell and Colgate.
Recent clashes between the Crimson and the Bobcats have consistently been hard-fought. Harvard has nabbed the previous two bouts, but Quinnipiac took four straight before that, including an overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden in January 2016, when the Bobcats were ranked No. 2/1.
“In [Quinnipiac’s] barn, it’s always a close game,” Donato said. “They’re always going to finish every check. They play really hard…. We just have to get pucks deep and play a style where we run them down. We have a great conditioned team.”
Having played into the offensive approach of its last few adversaries, the Crimson will have to adjust to Quinnipiac’s physical, trapping brand of hockey.
“We know Quinnipiac plays a trap in the neutral zone and they like to transition the puck really fast,” Bowlby said. “We’re going to have to…work them in the offensive zone and make them play defense.”
Heading into the season, Harvard accounted for half of the all-ECAC team, as sophomore defensemen Adam Fox, tri-captain goaltender Merrick Madsen, and Donato all earned spots. The Bobcats were also represented on this shortlist of players to watch, as junior blue-liner Chase Priskie intrigued both media and coaches ahead of the new campaign.
Priskie (5 goals, 5 assists) headlines the Quinnipiac roster along with the team’s scoring leader, first-year forward Odeen Tufto (3 goals, 12 assists), and sophomore netminder Andrew Shortridge (5-5-1, 1.89 GAA, .924 SV%).
In Saturday’s tilt with the Tigers (4-5-1, 2-4-1), the Crimson will face yet another pre-season all-ECAC selection in junior forward Max Véronneau. The Ottawa, Ont., native has already notched six goals and six assists through Princeton’s 10 games this year, as he continues to ride the momentum from last season’s point-per-game performance.
In addition to Véronneau, three fellow upperclassmen help round out the offensive leadership for the Tigers, who improved 10 games year-over-year last season: junior Ryan Kuffner and seniors David Hallisey and Eric Robinson have registered 13 goals and 13 assists through 30 combined games.
Now that Harvard’s offense seems to be clicking thanks to coach Donato’s new line combinations, the Crimson will look to capitalize on rookie goaltender Ryan Ferland. Princeton’s first-year netminder has not shined through the first third of the season, posting a 4-4-1 record on a 3.07 goals against average and .911 save percentage.
Historically, matchups between the Harvard icemen and the Tigers have been lopsided, with the Crimson owning a 155-58-11 overall record. Of late, this trend has only been magnified: Harvard seeks its ninth straight win over Princeton on Saturday as it looks to start clawing back to .500 in this young season.
“At the end of the day, we left ourselves a chance to come back with a strong second half,” Donato said. “We really have to push ourselves after [the holiday] break to show the kind of potential that we have as a team.”
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Spencer on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.
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