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PROVIDENCE, R.I.--The Harvard men's hockey team celebrated the dawning of the Mark Mazzoleni era by scoring exactly one goal. And senior goaltender J.R. Prestifilippo made sure it was enough.
Harvard's 1-0 win over Brown Saturday was anything but pretty. The oldest rivalry in college hockey renewed with chippy play, pucks bouncing off skates, and the Crimson sending just 19 shots on net after scoring at 9:03 of the first period.
But interspersed between the bad penalties and the missed passes, the promise behind Mazzoleni's puck-pressure system started to shine through, and Prestifilippo converted the promise into a victory.
The Bears sent 26 shots towards him with increasing quality, and "Presto" turned them all aside. Along the way, he made one of the best saves I have ever seen.
With 3:35 remaining in the game, Brown freshman Chris Legg darted down the center of the ice on a breakaway. He deked left and cut right, switching the puck to his forehand completely around a falling Prestifilippo. Legg had a split second to set himself and put the puck into the net while the keeper lay vertical along the ice.
Legg's stick went into the air. The crowd of 2,317 rose to its feet. Eventually, Prestifilippo did too, and calmly dropped the puck from his glove. How it got there, I'm still not entirely sure.
"He was the difference," said Mazzoleni of Prestifilippo. "When the guy went in uncontested, he stole their goal. There was no doubt about it."
Prestifilippo had already stoned freshman winger Jason Wilson at 9:50 of the second period off a breakaway. That chest save would have sufficed for one night.
Halfway through the third, he stacked the pads to stop sophomore winger J.F. Labarre's wristshot from in close and squeezed them even tighter to force James Duval's rebound attempt from just above the goal crease to scurry wide.
Prestifilippo covered up all the mistakes Harvard made as it tried to get adjusted to four new line combinations up front that incorporated two freshmen and two seniors who have seen little ice time since their freshman year.
Beyond normal first game rustiness, the Crimson had some difficulty adjusting to Mazzoleni's demand that his players make quick decisions with the puck. Many feeds failed to find the stick of its target.
But Prestifilippo allowed Harvard to walk away from the game thinking that all it practiced over the past two weeks will pay off. Harvard certainly hinted at an exciting future.
"At some point along the season, when we really are committed to our overall discipline and the way we want to play in our overall system [goaltending], we'll be a tough team to play against," Mazzoleni said
Off the opening faceoff, freshman center Dominic Moore and sophomore wingers Chris Bala and Jeff Stonehouse established a three-man forecheck that immediately forced the Bears into a neutral zone turnover.
The Crimson used its speed whenever it could to force mistakes from the inexperienced Brown squad. During the preseason, Mazzoleni preached of a three-second opportunity, namely that it takes a team about three seconds to get set defensively after a turnover. The smart teams know how to exploit that moment of confusion.
The Harvard offensive output shows that the Crimson has not fully mastered the exploitation, but it is started to prove itself quite adept at creating confusion.
About five minutes into the second period, a Brown defenseman tried to clear the puck along his own blueline. Before he could look up, senior winger Jamin Kerner attempted to steal the puck. Two more Crimson players, freshman winger Brett Nowak and senior defenseman Mark Moore, were right on Kerner's heels.
The tenacious cycle of pressure, which kept the puck in the Brown zone, eventually forced the puck deep to junior winger Harry Schwefel for a potential Crimson scoring chance.
The play was not really spectacular, and Schwefel did not get a good shot away if any, but it showed the seeds of a system developing that could make Harvard a very tough team.
Harvard started to perform the little things that it never really executed under former coach Ronn Tomassoni. Little things like a penalty kill during the second period, when freshman defenseman Aaron Kim simultaneously took out Duval and pushed the incoming pass out of the zone.
Kim, incidentally, had perhaps the best night of the Crimson rookies, logging as many minutes as the veterans and playing on the penalty kill and power play. He got the secondary assist on Schwefel's goal.
Throughout the night, the Harvard defense implemented the strategies learned by Assistant Coach Ron Rolston at Clarkson. The Crimson smartly positioned itself to deflect passes, block shots, and clear rebounds. Brown rarely had second shots, even if its first shots were extremely dangerous.
By no means was it perfect, and against a better team, the lapses in Harvard's execution of the system would have resulted in goals and a loss.
But Presto made sure Mazzoleni was a winner in his first game at the helm. He made sure that the little things would suggest a bright future for the program.
"The team has been working hard," Schwefel said. "It's good to see all our confidence in our new system work out."
A year ago, Harvard also scored just one goal in its home opener against Brown. It lost that game 4-1, and would go on to start the year 0-8-1 in the ECAC.
It's a new year. It's a new era.
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