With four weeks having elapsed since the Harvard men’s hockey team last took the ice, some rust was to be expected from the Crimson in its return to action Friday night, especially early on.
That turned out not to be the case. Instead, the opening six minutes saw Harvard fire 11 shots on goal, the last of which gave the Crimson its first lead of the season’s second stanza. And that edge would not be erased, as No. 4 Harvard (9-2-1, 5-1-1 ECAC) led throughout in a 5-1 victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center.
“It’s been a long break, and I think the guys were hungry to get back at it,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “We knew this was a game that we wanted to have and needed to have with us trailing a lot of our league foes in games played. So it was an important two points for us.”
At least one skater from each of the Crimson’s four lines lit the lamp against the last-place Engineers (3-17-1, 1-10-0). Three stat-sheet ‘regulars’ notched goals, as seniors Luke Esposito and Sean Malone each scored on the power play and top-line sophomore Ryan Donato converted on a wrap-around. But also getting in on the action, freshman Ty Pelton-Byce and junior Eddie Ellis picked up their first goals of the season.
Pelton-Byce got the ball rolling on the tail end of Harvard's 11-shot outburst, turning a low wrister from just outside the slot into his first collegiate goal at 5:27 in period one.
“We had to be mentally prepared to come out of the gate firing,” Pelton-Byce said. “And I think we did a good job of that.”
Yet, after the Crimson's lightning-fast start, Harvard only produced three more shots on goal in the frame. But one of them found the mesh. Skating around the RPI net, Malone spotted Esposito inside the right faceoff circle, where the senior from Greenwich, Connecticut, flung a wrister past sophomore netminder Cam Hackett on the power play at 13:05.
Things didn’t grow any easier for Hackett, who has allowed 13 goals in his last two starts against the Crimson. Co-captain Devin Tringale forced a turnover deep in the Engineer zone to set up Ellis’s gritty punch-in at 7:06 in the second, bringing the score to 3-0 in favor of the hosts.
RPI finally retaliated less than a minute later when freshman center Jacob Hayhurst sniped the upper right corner of the net, beating the glove of Harvard netminder Merrick Madsen from atop the slot. In the five minutes that followed, the Engineers pushed hard for another score, generating a power play and creating seven more shots on goal.
“At 3-1 in the second, I thought the team that was going to score the next goal was going to win,” RPI coach Seth Appert said. “I thought the next seven minutes, we were all over them. We were buzzing them, and Madsen was fantastic…. If he wasn’t as good as he was, we had a chance to get that to 3-2.”
Madsen stopped all seven shots during the Engineer flurry as part of a 30-save performance, his third of the season. The junior goaltender made 10 of those stops during RPI power plays, helping the Crimson penalty kill finish a perfect 5-for-5 on the night and increase its streak of consecutive penalties killed to 12.
Harvard’s huge special teams night didn’t end there. After Ryan Donato’s wrap-around increased the lead to 4-1 in the second period, Malone added a top-shelf turn-around strike in the following frame, marking the Crimson’s second power-play tally of the night. Harvard has now scored two power-play goals in four consecutive games and five of its last six. Its conversion rate sits at 32.1 percent—the best clip in the nation by more than 4 percent.
The Crimson's latest two-goal showing on the man-up was impressively orchestrated without freshman defenseman Adam Fox, who all year has been the lone blue-liner on Harvard's top power play unit. Fox, also the national leader in points per game by a defenseman, is currently in Canada representing Team USA at the World Junior Championships.
In Fox’s absence, Ted Donato at times went back to the five-forward power-play scheme that became the standard for his top unit a year ago. But ultimately, the Crimson's man-up performance on Friday showcased more of Harvard's special teams depth than the strength of one particular unit. The two goal-scorers—Esposito and Malone—are usually members of the second grouping.
With the win, the Crimson moves into a tie for fourth in the ECAC, six points behind first-place Union. Harvard still has between three and four games in hand over all three teams it currently trails in the standings.
“That’s as good of a team as we’ve played this year,” Appert said. “I think they’re a real tenacious team right now.”
—Harvard edged the Engineers, 38-31, in shots on goal, and it out-attempted the visitors, 73-59. Ryan Donato led the Crimson with eight shots on goal, a career-high for the sophomore, and 12 attempts in total.
—With Adam Fox out, senior defenseman Clay Anderson moved up a pairing to play alongside sophomore Jacob Olson. Fellow sophomores Adam Baughman and Viktor Dombrovskiy—both left-handed skaters—teamed up on the third pairing, and each finished plus-two on the night.
—After the game, RPI coach Seth Appert talked about a difference he sees between this year’s Harvard team and last’s.
“They played hard last year, don’t get me wrong, [but now] they seem to have more of a chip on their shoulder,” Appert said. “Like ‘we can still be an elite team and be a championship caliber team without [Kyle] Criscuolo and [Jimmy] Vesey,’ two pretty special hockey players. I think they’re not only relying on their skill right now, but they’re relying on their work ethic and their tenacity.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.
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