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ALBANY, N.Y.—Even at the height of his summer campaign buzz, Howard Dean couldn’t dream of poll numbers this convincing.
The Harvard men’s hockey team was an overwhelming favorite in the ECAC preseason polls, released during the league’s annual media day yesterday afternoon at the Pepsi Arena.
The Crimson received 10 of 12 first-place votes in the coaches’ poll for a total of 120 points, the most earned by one team in four years.
Consensus among the media was stronger yet. Twenty of the 22 ballots had Harvard in the top spot, the strongest consensus in the five-year history of the media poll.
Harvard also placed two players on the preseason all-conference team, winger Tim Pettit and defenseman Noah Welch. The most any other school had was one.
Were this a nominating convention, coach Mark Mazzoleni would’ve spoken last and received a shower of crimson balloons.
“Based on what we return, and what we’ve done the last few years, and due to the loss of certain players by other teams in the league, this doesn’t surprise me,” said Mazzoleni, whose team has made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and returns 20 lettermen.
“This is something you definitely build for, and strive for. You want to get your program in the position where you can be spoken of in these terms.”
The last time Mazzoleni was at the Pepsi Arena, he watched Cornell’s strong-willed seniors lead a dramatic comeback to wrest a second consecutive ECAC championship from his team’s grasp.
The Big Red won last year’s ECAC regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the Frozen Four. The Crimson, meanwhile, finished second in the regular season, second in the ECAC tournament and ended with a clunker against BU in the first round of the NCAAs.
But with the departure of Cornell’s seven seniors and Hobey Baker Award finalist goaltender David LeNeveu, the edge in experience has shifted.
This year, it’s Harvard that has the closely-knit senior class that stayed on campus through the summer and led workouts, as the Big Red’s did in 2002. And it’s the Crimson that’s coming off an overtime loss in the previous ECAC title game and cameo appearance in the NCAAs—two things that happened to Cornell two years ago and motivated it last season.
“They’ve gone through it before, like us, and they’ve been to the NCAA tournament and been disappointed with the result,” Big Red coach Mike Schafer said of Harvard’s nine seniors. “They’ve had a lot of success, like the senior group we had last year. Those guys have already achieved the ECAC championship, but at the same time they have greater ideas of grandeur, much like our team.”
As freshmen, the Class of 2004 bought into a program with a new coach. They’ve since been repaid with an ECAC title and 2002-2003 season that included more wins (22) than Harvard had in nearly a decade.
Mazzoleni said Monday that his team “definitely has the ability and experience” to win the regular season and tournament titles.
“Now we just have to get on the ice and do that,” he said.
And yet, there’s even more on the agenda. Namely, making some improvements on the Crimson’s 0-7-1 mark last season against NCAA tournament teams.
As a team that has reasserted its place in college hockey’s upper echelon, it’s fair to judge Harvard by its performance against the nation’s elite. So until those near misses turn into big wins, the Crimson will have difficulty claiming supremacy, within the ECAC or in Boston’s hallowed hockey circles.
The solution? Take the ECAC regular season and tournament titles, and go .500-or-better against the likes of BC, BU, and Cornell. A win or two in the NCAA tournament is a must. And it’s about time for a Beanpot, last won by Harvard in 1993.
Accomplish all of that, and you can strip the “Can’t Win the Big One” label off Bright Hockey Center and chuck it into the dirty Charles.
And as for the Frozen Four…Well, BC is loaded, and two teams that played in one of last year’s national semifinals—Michigan and two-time defending champ Minnesota—both return several key players. Three spots might be locked up already.
But who’s to say that Harvard can’t take the last one? It will have its best defense in years, a third-year starter in underrated goalie Dov Grumet-Morris and a deep well of forwards that can ease the loss of big scorers Dominic Moore ’03 and Brett Nowak ’03.
Plus, the Frozen Four is at the FleetCenter this year. Perfect.
But when asked Monday how far his team has to go in order for this to be a “successful” season, Mazzoleni said, “I don’t think you can always base that statement on how far you go…We definitely have enough challenges to deal with. As crazy as it sounds, you really have to take it one by one.”
And as far as the first one, the ECAC title, Mazzoleni’s team has received a ringing endorsement—or burden—from among its peers. It came in the form of a poll released on a gray Monday in September. At election time this spring, Harvard will try to turn that into a mandate.
So, let the stumping begin. With any luck, it will end in April at the same place where one of 10 Democrats will get a big boost three months later.
—Staff writer Jon P. Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.
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