Reaching back-to-back Frozen Fours is a rare feat in today’s Division I landscape. In fact, only five teams have been able to pull it off in the last decade, including North Dakota’s string of three consecutive appearances from 2014-2016.
And yet, the No. 2/3 Harvard men’s hockey team prepares for its 2017-2018 campaign with this exact goal in mind. After wrapping up preseason play on Saturday night with a 7-2 exhibition win against the U-18 U.S. National Team Development Program, the Crimson ultimately has its eyes set on St. Paul, Minn., this year’s Frozen Four destination.
“Last year is great—it doesn’t help us any, and it doesn’t hurt us any,” tri-captain Jake Horton said. “As much as it doesn’t hurt us, you have every team now circling their schedule when they play the Crimson.”
The last three seasons have seen the resurgence of Harvard into the upper echelon of Division I hockey. On the backs of Jimmy Vesey ’16, Kyle Criscuolo ’16, and Alexander Kerfoot ’17, to name a few, the program experienced a major revival resulting in three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Last season marked the culmination of this rebirth, as the Crimson reached its first Frozen Four since the 1994 campaign before bowing out to Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals. For Harvard, getting to St. Paul in April would mean back-to-back Frozen Fours for the first time in 31 years.
The Crimson’s leadership does not seem daunted by this task, however.
“We have a lot of the pieces in place here,” tri-captain netminder Merrick Madsen said. “We have all the guys that we want in the locker room.”
Despite Madsen’s reassurances, this year’s squad faces many of the same questions recent teams have after the departure of high-end talent. After Vesey and Criscuolo departed for professional hockey in 2016, last year’s team fought all year to disprove the early naysayers.
“Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve had a lot of faith in the guys coming back in this room,” senior defenseman Thomas Aiken said. “The ability for every guy to get better over the summer and earn a bigger role than they did last year…has allowed us to continue replacing some of those big losses.”
A strong corps of senior forwards, who ultimately led Division I in scoring among fourth-years, helped replace Vesey’s on-ice dynamism and Criscuolo’s experienced leadership. But now, even these cornerstones—Tyler Moy ’17, Luke Esposito ’17, Sean Malone ’17, and Kerfoot—have moved on.
The forward ranks have seen a major retool this pre-season, with freshmen and members of last year’s bottom six filling the open spots left by the class of 2017. Luckily, junior forward Ryan Donato, who promises to be this season’s offensive centerpiece, will be a source of stability and mentorship for these less experienced players.
“At the beginning of the season you have those summer hockey habits,” Donato said. “You have to get those things out of you, and some junior hockey habits, you have to change a little bit. Those are things that I’ve been trying to work on in practice and hopefully lead by example.”
Donato or not, the attacking force persists as the team’s biggest question mark entering the regular season. Madsen, once again, is not buying it.
“I think we should give our forwards more credit than they’ve been getting so far in the fall, from anybody,” Madsen said.
On the flipside to this uncertainty up front, the Crimson remains extremely experienced and talented on the back end. The team’s relative strength on the blue line means that Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 will be preaching a more balanced game than last year’s run-and-gun offensive juggernaut.
“We’re going to be a different team, I think that goes without saying” Horton said. “Every year we’ve had to evolve a little bit with the different pieces. That being said, I think everybody wants to discount what we have up front, like they’ve also done in the past.”
The team returns five of last year’s top six, including sophomores Adam Fox and John Marino, both of whom put forth impressive freshman campaigns. Despite all the returners, freshman Reilly Walsh has earned a starting role, and his classmate Benjamin Foley is certainly in the mix as well. And one cannot forget about the imposing 6’7” Wiley Sherman, whose presence will help lock down opposing forwards all season.
“We have a ton of talent back there,” Madsen said. “You look in front of you and you have six-foot-seven Wiley Sherman—there’s something that is comforting about that. Or Adam Fox, who can basically do anything with the puck.”
The man singing these praises is perhaps the keystone in Harvard’s defensive prowess this season. A year after fighting for his role as starter, Madsen started all 36 games for Harvard last year and broke program records for wins (28) and longest win streak (16).
The senior’s consistency down the stretch last season undoubtedly propelled the team to its Frozen Four berth—an experience the squad hopes to enjoy this year as well.
To arrive in St. Paul in April, the Crimson will have to battle through a unique schedule this year, featuring a nine-game stretch of road matchups spanning practically all of November and December. Road trips of this length are rare, as Harvard has only seen one eight-gamer (2015-2016), as well as a few seven-gamers in the last three decades.
The Crimson is guaranteed to go to Minnesota this year—but not for the Frozen Four. That feat will have to be the team’s second trip to the Twin Cities this year, as Harvard will visit No. 8/7 Minnesota for a pair of games during its road trip. This matchup is the most unusual on the team’s schedule this season, as the Crimson has faced the Golden Gophers only once in the last five seasons.
Minnesota accounts for just two games in Harvard’s most challenging stretch of the season. The Crimson will run the gauntlet against the four most formidable teams on its schedule—Cornell, Minnesota (twice), No. 13/15 Boston College, and No. 18 Quinnipiac—in the middle of the nine-game road trip.
“We have a really strong first half,” Horton acknowledged. “We know that down the stretch, for playoff time, those are the teams we are going to be seeing…. We don’t by any means think that we are an underdog going into those matchups.”
Harvard will have to be especially sharp in the midst of the away stretch, as the team annually gets off to a later start than its non-Ivy League peers. The Crimson’s most competitive opponents during this nine-game block will have played up to five more games by the time the teams meet.
Considering the relative youth of the team, coach Donato will have to mentally and physically prepare his players for the mid-season intensity they will face early on.
“We really need to push ourselves because of the late start,” coach Donato said. “Ultimately, there’s certain things that play out during the game that can really only be experienced through the game, so [preparing the team] is difficult. It is an advantage sometimes when you have a lot more upperclassmen that…can manage some of those situations.”
Luckily, before the massive away stretch the Crimson opens at home with three Ivy League matchups versus Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown. This gives the team some time to get its game legs against other squads that started later than the pool.
“While it’s tough to play three big Ivy games right out of the gate, the flipside of it is that we got teams who are in a similar situation to us,” coach Donato said.
The schedule after the holiday break takes on a much more regular form. After alternating home and away weekends throughout January, Harvard faces off against No. 7/8 Boston University in the semifinals of the Beanpot. The Crimson will be looking to defend its title from last season—its first since 1993.
After the early February festivities, Harvard closes with four final ECAC matchups before conference playoffs begin in early March.
Overall, the Crimson must answer lingering questions about forward depth and prepare to face stiff competition early on. These challenges are just part of the difficulty in getting back to the Frozen Four. Whether Harvard will drop the puck in St. Paul in April remains to be seen.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Spencer on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.