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On Friday afternoon, the Harvard men’s hockey team faces a familiar foe in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Northeast regional at the Worcester Centrum. And with the rematch, the Crimson hopes that the phrase “Third time’s a charm” is more than just an old saying.
Harvard will skate against Boston University at 4 p.m., meeting the Terriers for the third time this season, with both of the previous meetings having gone the Comm. Ave. way. However, the Crimson hopes to turn around recent history, and knock off the higher-seeded Terriers.
Playing the nightcap in Worcester is No. 1 seed UNH and No. 4 seed St. Cloud State. No. 2 seed BU, as the host school of the regional, was guaranteed a spot at Worcester, but Harvard’s placement at the local site came as something of a surprise. Most prognosticators expected the Crimson to play at Providence against Maine. Despite the surprise, the team was very confident when its opponent was announced Sunday night on ESPN.
“We’re a very confident team,” captain Dominic Moore said. “Last year we may have had a lot of an underdog mentality. This year we consider ourselves one of the top teams in the country.”
“Last year we got in [to the NCAA Tournament] because [the Selection Committee] had to take us [as an automatic bid as the ECAC champion],” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “This year, we got in on our merits.”
Those credits include a 22-9-2 record, a No. 12 national ranking and a second-place finish in both the ECAC Tournament and the regular season. The Crimson’s hopes of a repeat of last year’s ECAC title ended in overtime late Saturday night when Cornell forward Sam Paolini scored the game-winning goal off an odd-man rush toward the Harvard net.
The Crimson’s performance against the No. 1 team in the country left many in Albany impressed, especially with how the team responded to the Big Red’s hard-checking, physical style.
“I think Harvard’s going to do a lot of damage in the NCAAs,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “They’ve got a great hockey team.”
Against the Big Red, the third time was not the trick for the Crimson, as Cornell tied the game with half a minute left in regulation, and then went on to win 1:23 into overtime on Paolini’s shot from the faceoff circle. Still, time spent preparing for the Big Red could pay off against the Terriers.
“There’s a lot of similarities between Cornell and BU that we’ve worked on for a couple of weeks,” Mazzoleni said.
“I think BU is a big, tenacious team,” he continued. “But BU likes to get in more of a transition game than Cornell.”
As Mazzoleni said, the Terriers’ strong, physical play along the boards is much like that of the Big Red, but the tempo of the game will be very different. Where Cornell likes a slow, half-ice style of play, the BU will look to open things up in transition for its fast-skating forwards. However, emphasis on the forwards might be misplaced; in the teams’ two meetings this season, Harvard’s problem has been a combination of a faltering offense and passive defense.
In the teams’ first meeting in November at Walter Brown Arena, BU won 3-0. The second contest was in the Fleet Center on the opening night of the Beanpot. Despite scoring first, the Crimson again fell to BU, this time 2-1. The difference between the two contests: defensive pressure.
“I thought we attacked them in the Beanpot game, attacked them consistently,” Mazzoleni said. “The first time we played BU, we gave them too much space. The second time we went after them.”
“That’s definitely the way we’ve got to play on Friday,” he continued. “We’ve got to go after them.”
For his part, BU coach Jack Parker was impressed with how Harvard has played, both against his team and in the ECAC Tournament.
“[The earlier two meetings] were both well played games by Harvard,” Parker said. “And they played great in their tournament. I think they could have easily walked out with a 3-1 win [over Cornell].”
But the Terriers have also improved since the Crimson last saw them. Beginning with its Beanpot win over Harvard, BU has been on a 9-3-1 tear, which included a Beanpot victory over BC and a march to the final of the Hockey East Tournament.
“We’ve come together as a team [since the Beanpot],” Parker said. “We’re well-focused.”
A large part of that focus has been a renewed commitment to aggressive defense. The Terriers have been successful in utilizing defensive pressure to create turnovers and quick outlet passes to start breaks.
“BU is a very tight-checking team, and their defensemen step up a lot,” said sophomore forward Brendan Bernakevitch.
To counteract that defensive pressure, the Crimson will have to penetrate into the BU zone, and avoid turnovers near the blue line and shots from a distance.
“You’ve got to be able to penetrate to their net,” Mazzoleni said. “You’re not going to beat people if all you’re doing is relying on a perimeter game.”
The difference between perimeter and point-blank shots was apparent against Cornell. Facing the best goaltender in the country, Dave LeNeveu, and the Big Red’s suffocating defense, Harvard settled for perimeter shots for the first half of the contest. And a good goaltender like LeNeveu or BU’s Sean Fields—one of the best netminders in Hockey East—will stop that first shot.
The Crimson became successful in the second and third periods when it took shots from in close, and had forwards crashing the net looking to poke home loose pucks.
“Getting to the net, looking for rebounds—it’s going to take some ugly goals on Friday night to get it done,” Moore said.
While BU is certainly favored to defeat Harvard, with two victories over the Crimson under the Terriers’ belt, Harvard enters the game with a different attitude and the memory of last year’s first round NCAA loss to Maine.
“The main difference, it’s the underdog mentality versus the confidence we have this year,” Moore said. “We came up on the short end of both the BU games, and we’re looking forward to having a shot at them again.”
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