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Harvard students awoke on Tuesday, March 10, to the University’s announcement that students were to vacate campus by Sunday due to the surging COVID-19 pandemic. That afternoon, with the academic side of the Charles River in relative upheaval, the men’s hockey team gathered at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center for practice.
It was a particularly loose skate. Drills were competitive but fun, and smiles were prevalent as coaches and players alike engaged in the usual on-ice banter. Everyone did their best to ignore the looming reality: with the coronavirus sending shockwaves through the worlds of sports and academia, Harvard’s season was in jeopardy despite the team’s upcoming series with Rensselaer in the ECAC quarterfinals.
“A lot of us were still very unsure of whether we were going to play,” junior defenseman Reilly Walsh recalled. “In the back of our minds, guys were having a lot of fun and trying to soak it all in. We kind of had an idea that it was looking like we weren’t going to play.”
Tuesday’s practice proved to be the final time that the 2019-2020 rendition of the Crimson would formally skate together. The playoff clash with the Engineers was cancelled the following day, with the rest of college hockey soon to follow.
“I can’t say that I didn’t make it down to the rink those last few days [prior to moving off campus],” captain Nathan Krusko said. “I definitely was emotionally drawn to going back into the locker room and trying to soak in as much [as possible] in the final days that we had on campus. It’s been a little bit tough to move on right now.”
The 2019-2020 campaign is, by definition, incomplete. The Harvard icemen never were able to capitalize on the confidence they possessed as they ventured deeper into the conference tournament—in fact, no team was. And while the past year of college hockey was ultimately inconclusive, the five months leading up to the pandemic-related shutdown provided plenty to look back on and analyze.
THE BIG PICTURE
In several ways, this season featured a similar set of accomplishments to the campaign prior. Crimson coach Ted Donato ’91 once again boasted a young corps of elite scorers. Harvard players occupied three of the ECAC’s top four spots in scoring, as well as three of its top five positions among freshman point-getters.
Powered by its young guns, the Crimson’s offense ranked fifth in the nation in goals per game (3.74). Among the greatest contributors to Harvard’s scoring success was its powerplay, as in 2018-2019. Last season, the Crimson’s man-up unit finished second in the country in effectiveness; this year, it sat atop Division I.
The group’s knack for scoring was not the only trend to carry over from last campaign. The Harvard squad entered this season with questions about replacing key departures, including a reliable option in net. The 2019-2020 season quelled much of these doubts.
“When you have question marks as far as experience [goes], in the net, on the blue line, and just overall [about] the age of your top players, there is a little bit of a learning curve that needs to take place, and I thought that we handled that well,” coach Donato reflected.
Each year, one of coach Donato’s primary goals is to provide his players with memorable experiences. He and his staff work toward this goal in part by trying to ensure that the team’s schedule includes numerous high-profile matchups. In 2019-2020, the Crimson enjoyed several marquee bouts, as in previous years. A rivalry game against Yale at Madison Square Garden, a two-game series with Arizona State hosted in Southern California, and the annual Beanpot Tournament comprised just some of the circle-your-calendar events in the recent campaign.
“Definitely one of the enjoyable ones is New York City,” said junior forward Henry Bowlby about his favorite memories from the season. “We’ve gotten to play there the last two years. It’s always a special weekend because [Madison Square Garden] is just such an amazing arena…. We’ve played well both years as a team, won big games, and then got to enjoy the night as well as…the Harvard Club in the morning.”
Despite the similarities between this season and last, the differences between the two iterations of Harvard hockey arguably tell a more meaningful story. In 2018-2019, the program opened its season with its worst-ever stretch through four contests (0-2-2). The Crimson, however, was able to rebound from its rocky start, return to the top-20 leaderboard, and use its respectable position in the Pairwise rankings to clinch an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
By contrast, this year the Crimson rattled off six consecutive wins to begin its slate, vaulting the team as high as No. 9/6 in the nation. But spells of inconsistency derailed the Crimson’s dazzling start and prevented it from separating materially from the .500 mark until the very end of the campaign.
“It was kind of a weird season from start to finish,” junior centerman Jack Badini said. “We started off really hot, maybe playing a little bit out of this world…and coming back down to reality knowing that no game is going to be easy.”
By the March 11 cancellation of its season, Harvard’s 15-10-6 record (11-6-5 ECAC) was not good enough to land the program a spot on the national big board. More notably, the composition of the Crimson’s wins and losses harmed the group in the Pairwise rankings. Harvard finished 27th in the Pairwise—far too pedestrian for an at-large bid to the NCAA bracket.
Coach Donato’s group mustered very few points from clashes with blue-chip programs such as Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Cornell. The Crimson showed promising spurts of play in almost all of its marquee matchups—enough to give veterans like Walsh the conviction that the team belonged in the national top 10. Nevertheless, in many high-profile matchups, Harvard struggled to string together a complete 60 minutes, which is a necessity if one hopes to pocket victories over ranked foes so valuable for the Pairwise.
“Some of those games didn’t go our way,” freshman forward John Farinacci said. “At the end of the day, you have to take them as learning experiences…. As the year went on, we got better and better. Being able to manage adversity coming into next year will be a huge goal for us.”
With losses or ties against some of the weaker conference competition, the Crimson also left points on the table that would have helped it secure a coveted top-four spot in the ECAC and first-round playoff bye.
“Our season is probably defined by a little bit of inconsistency,” Krusko said. “There’d be times where we’d be able to string together some good wins, and there’d be times where we’d have some questionable losses. But I think that just goes to show how much talent we actually had in that room…. When we were willing to put in the small things and do everything it takes to win, we would come out with a win.”
In 2019-2020, the Crimson wowed with its scoring capability, young core of players at each position, and ability to challenge—and at times defeat—some of the nation’s top teams. Plus, Harvard’s precocious group will enter next season with an additional year of experience and college hockey savvy in its tool belt.
All that remains to address are the results themselves. The coronavirus preempted many of the usual barometers that the Crimson uses to evaluate each season. Even so, finishing fourth in the Beanpot, posting a 3-6-2 record against ranked teams, and missing out on a first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs will all serve as points on which the program will look to improve in 2020-2021.
EMPTY SPOTS, FULL EXPECTATIONS
Entering the 2019-2020 campaign, the expectations within the Harvard program were the same as they usually are: win the Beanpot, clinch a top-four finish in the conference, run through Lake Placid en route to an ECAC crown, and compete for a national title in the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the Crimson paid little attention to outside concerns, it would have to answer multiple questions along its pursuit of these goals. None of these questions were more daunting than whether the group could replace a talented crop of departures from the season prior.
For starters, Harvard graduated two passionate, effective captains in Michael Floodstrand ’19 and Lewis Zerter-Gossage ’19. This letter-wearing tandem guided a young roster through many college hockey firsts. Over the course of last season, the team made strides in maturity and poise and earned a spot in the national bracket as a result.
The greatest hole created over the summer came not by way of graduation, but rather from early exoduses to the National Hockey League. After their junior campaigns, defensemen Adam Fox and John Marino both joined the professional ranks, where they enjoyed stellar rookie seasons.
Despite playing on the blue line, Fox was the offensive cornerstone for the Crimson in 2018-2019, easily eclipsing the career 100-point milestone during his final season at Harvard and earning his third consecutive CCM/AHCA First Team All-America selection. His 48 points (9–39—48) broke the school record for most single-season points by a rearguard.
Marino, meanwhile, further bolstered the right side of the Crimson’s back end with his two-way game, underrated offensive capabilities, and gritty playing style. This NHL season proved that both defensemen were ready for the next level; that said, had Fox and Marino returned for their senior years, Harvard would have iced undoubtedly the most formidable blue line in college hockey.
“We had some challenges with losing two really important players for us,” said coach Donato, referring to Fox and Marino. “I thought we improved [over the course of the season] with some young defensemen.”
The losses of Marino, Adam Baughman ’19, and Jacob Olson ’19 also stripped Harvard of most of its physical edge, an especially important factor in the ECAC. This season, the young and undersized Crimson at times struggled to match the physical demands of battling older and larger players.
So, the summer left sizable voids in leadership and on the blue line. It also created a question between the pipes, as Michael Lackey ’19 transferred to Providence College to spend his final year of NCAA eligibility fielding pucks for another national contender. In 2018-2019, Lackey became a sturdy number-one goaltender and helped propel Harvard to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite uncertainties throughout the lineup, the expectations for the 2019-2020 campaign remained high.
RELIVING THE SLATE
Through the first three weeks of the season, the Crimson generally appeared to have addressed its roster questions. To open its schedule, Coach Donato’s group defeated six straight ECAC foes, including a statement 7-2 thrashing of a ranked Quinnipiac squad. Through Thanksgiving, Harvard’s torrid offense led Division I in per-game scoring (5.50).
During that six-game stretch, the Crimson thrived on opportunism, converting shots into goals at an unusually high clip. Senior Cameron Gornet and freshman Mitchell Gibson combined to form a two-headed monster in net, providing .955 goaltending and pocketing three wins each.
“We started off as hot as I’ve ever been on a hockey team,” sophomore defenseman Jack Rathbone said. “We almost felt like we couldn’t lose on that stretch. We were playing some great hockey. We had a really deep team and we knew that, and everyone was contributing. That was fun to see, and it was fun to play in an environment like that.”
As the victories accrued, Harvard shot up in the national rankings, cracking the top 10. In spite of this, opponents were outshooting the Crimson by over eight shots per game, suggesting areas for improvement in the team defense department.
In late November, Harvard finally saw the conclusion of its unbeaten start to the season. Boston College, which finished 2019-2020 at No. 4, found twine three times in the final minutes of the second period to snatch victory in a relatively even matchup.
Four days later, a crosstown trip to Boston University began a stretch of games that exposed some of the early-season flaws in Harvard’s game. The Terriers took advantage of the Crimson’s defensive lapses to build a 4-1 lead early in the final frame, which Harvard was unable to overcome. Two Beantown rivals halted the Crimson’s winning streak and simultaneously initiated the team’s first multi-game skid of the season.
The losing would continue when conference play resumed. In early December, storied rival Cornell brought its No. 2 ranking and college hockey’s sole undefeated record to Cambridge. Despite two straight defeats, Harvard was confident in its start to the season and eagerly awaited the measuring-stick game.
The contest, however, served more as an awakening to the significant disparity that existed between the Crimson and the nation’s top teams. The Big Red overwhelmed its hosts in the first period, using speed and physicality to generate a 17-4 advantage in shots and, more importantly, a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard. Harvard gradually rose to match Cornell’s intensity, but it was too little, too late.
The Crimson entered the December holiday hiatus with a 6-4 record after bowing to Colgate in overtime the night after the Big Red’s decisive victory.
“We were scoring five, six goals [per game]. I think we played very well, and we were kind of clicking,” said Walsh of the first several weeks of the season. “Our speed and skill was taking over because teams hadn’t really developed their systems yet….Teams started to go back to the dump-and-chase, trap the neutral zone. That kind of took away from us as the season progressed. We were a dominant team, which we definitely could have been continuously, but as any team, we hit bumps in the road.”
Just before the new year, a memorable trip to Southern California and three points at Arizona State’s expense helped steer Harvard back to winning ways.
In the Crimson’s first matchup of 2020, Quinnipiac avenged its early-season loss. The team experienced mixed results through the first three weeks of January, epitomized by a 7-0 thumping of rival Yale at Madison Square Garden but also a 5-3 defeat to a top-10 Clarkson squad.
Harvard scarcely had time to dwell on the loss to the Golden Knights, though, as the following weekend marked the annual trek to Ithaca, N.Y. for a clash with Cornell. The showdown at Lynah Rink is the most anticipated tilt on the Crimson’s schedule each year. Especially after the Big Red’s dominant December showing at the Bright, Harvard was determined to take two points in Ithaca for the first time since 2017.
The Crimson played the ideal game to combat the heavy Cornell style and the oppressive Lynah environment. A controversial ending cost Harvard a triumph over the program’s most intense rival and the No. 1 team in the country—both then and at season’s end. The 1-1 draw was utterly unsatisfying for coach Donato and his group, although it became a pivotal moment in the campaign: the Crimson showed itself that it could contend with the league’s elite.
“Those moments where your whole team pulls together on the rope the same way, and you put so much into it, they do build a lot of inner-confidence within the group,” coach Donato said. “Even though we had a heartbreaking tie…I do think there was a layer of confidence that the group felt coming out of that.”
Harvard finished its busy month with perhaps its strangest affair of the year, an 8-5 victory at Union which included a six-goal second period for the visitors.
The Crimson was unable to extend its scoring touch into February, as it fell to Northeastern in the Beanpot semifinal and, the following Monday, lost its rematch opportunity against BC in the consolation game. Harvard finished fourth in the annual Boston hockey classic for the first time since 2016.
The yearly North Country trip to Clarkson and St. Lawrence in Upstate New York provided two very distinct matchups: one against a top-five team in the Golden Knights, and one against the conference’s bottom-feeder in the Saints. On Friday, the Crimson executed its gameplan and handled Clarkson in its hostile barn. Yet, even with the confidence of the prior night’s victory, Harvard came out flat against St. Lawrence on Saturday, providing the program with its only home win of the season on its senior night.
The Crimson thus experienced its most inspiring win and its worst defeat of the season in the same weekend.
“It was very frustrating for us to have to bus home after [the loss to St. Lawrence],” Krusko said. “We ended up turning around and sweeping them in the first round of the playoffs, but it goes to show that the team was a little bit inconsistent at that time. That was something that we struggled with for a while.”
Having left a handful of conference points on the table through January and February, Harvard would have to fight for its coveted top-four ECAC finish during the final weekend of the regular season. RPI was vying with the Crimson for this spot, and in dramatic fashion the Engineers were Harvard’s Friday-night matchup.
The Crimson controlled its fate: a win over RPI would secure the last available bye in the conference playoffs’ first round. Nevertheless, the Engineers imposed their formidable defense and goaltending on the Crimson, secured a 2-0 victory, and wrested control from Harvard over the conference seeding. The Crimson’s win in Saturday’s regular-season finale was irrelevant; RPI clinched the bye with a concurrent 4-1 victory over Dartmouth, forcing Harvard to play in the first round of the ECAC tournament for the first time since 2015.
One thing the Crimson’s first-round series did provide, at least, was a chance to avenge late February’s crucial loss to St. Lawrence. Harvard handled the Saints and won the series, 2-0, in what would become the Crimson’s final taste of game action in 2019-2020 due to the coronavirus.
PERFORMANCES AND PROGRESS
Harvard’s 15-10-6 record arguably reflected a degree of underperformance, considering the sheer talent throughout its 2019-2020 lineup. The Crimson roster featured nine NHL draft picks and a handful of undrafted skaters whose abilities likewise suggest futures in professional hockey. Moreover, in the recent campaign, many of the squad’s young but key contributors took meaningful strides in performance and experience.
“We weren’t able to avoid some adversity, but I think the adversity made us better,” coach Donato said. “I really think some of the lessons we learned, with some of our younger players seeing some really impactful minutes and important situations, will pay big dividends moving forward.”
Sophomore Jack Drury (20–19—39) anchored Harvard’s youthful forward corps with his two-way game and impassioned competitive edge. The Winnetka, Ill. native’s 20 goals led the team this season.
Perhaps the most significant individual storyline for the Crimson in 2019-2020 was Drury’s emergence as a bona fide number-one center and precociously effective leader. The Carolina Hurricanes prospect possessed these qualities even as a freshman, but this season the league embraced Drury as one of college hockey’s young stars.
Drury led by example as the Crimson looked to rebound from its post-winning-streak skid. In December and January, the sophomore paced Division I in points (18), points per game (1.80), goals per game (1.00), and powerplay goals (6). Toward the end of this impressive run—which included a brief hiatus to represent the United States in the IIHF World Junior Championship—the centerman experienced one of the defining moments of his NCAA career thus far.
Drury was at the center of the late-game dramatics at Cornell’s Lynah Rink. His go-ahead goal in the game’s final five minutes was seemingly the capstone on a well-played road game by Harvard. Several shifts later, though, the officials whistled Drury on a questionable slashing call in the Crimson’s offensive zone. The Big Red tied the game on the ensuing powerplay, robbing Harvard of a chance to take down its rival and the No. 1 team in the country.
“That Cornell game is probably one of the most emotional games I’ve played in my career,” Drury said. “In terms of games we really pulled together for as a team this season, I think that one stands out to me…. I took a penalty. That was unfortunate. I was pretty devastated that we came out with the tie instead of the win.”
After overtime ended in stalemate, Drury carried the burden of the frustrating tie. His teammates voiced their support in the locker room before returning to the bus for a difficult trip back to Cambridge. Drury, meanwhile, remained at ice level, teary-eyed, gazing out onto the ice. He so wanted to bring a marquee win to the Crimson program; according to his face, he thought he had failed his team.
Squandering a crucial victory is never a positive, but the experience, and resulting mentorship from coach Donato, did help shape Drury’s approach to on- and off-ice leadership. It also cemented Drury’s role among his teammates as their most passionate fellow competitor.
“All the guys love Drury. Jack is one of my favorite guys on the team,” Krusko said. “He’s just a guy that loves the game, loves being around the guys, has passion being at the rink. I think he has all the attributes and skills to not only captain Harvard one day but to play in the NHL…. He’s a guy that brings a lot of energy, a lot of jam, is a fun guy to be around, and it’s been a pleasure being able to play with him the last couple of years.”
While Jack Drury’s emotional roller coaster in Ithaca was a defining moment for him and his team’s season, the center is just one of many weapons in Harvard’s dynamic forward corps. Two major factors in Drury’s 15-point jump from his freshman campaign—in four fewer games, no less—were his incredibly productive wingers.
Sophomore Casey Dornbach (12–24—36) followed last season’s ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year performance with another prolific offensive season. In particular, he grew his game at even strength, adding nine 5-on-5 points to last year’s total.
To his right, Drury had 2019’s best ECAC freshman; to his left, he had 2020’s. Freshman Nick Abruzzese (14–30—44) led the conference in scoring and finished the season tied for third in points nationwide. He ran away with this year’s ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year designation and was named a CCM/AHCA Second Team All-American.
Together, Drury, Dornbach, and Abruzzese formed perhaps the most dangerous line in college hockey. The trio showed its potency throughout the season, with one of the better examples coming at Union in late January. The three forwards combined for 12 points on the night.
“They’re very smart, very easy to play with, and they know where to be on the ice at different times,” Dornbach said of his linemates. “We had something special…. Communication was a big thing with us, too.”
To complement Harvard’s lethal first line, Bowlby (8–8—16) and Badini (6–8—14) provided top-end speed and were among the Crimson’s most capable skaters when battling larger, physical teams. Sophomore R.J. Murphy (6–5—11), who commonly rounded out a line with Bowlby and Badini, impressed with his year-over-year improvement before an injury cost him seven games and slowed his production after he returned.
Rookie John Farinacci (10–12—22) posted a solid first collegiate season, skating both down the middle and on the wing as he provided versatility in the top nine. Farinacci looks to be a top-six mainstay moving forward.
Of the seven Harvard skaters who eclipsed 20 points in 2019-2020, three of them were defensemen. Rathbone (7–24—31) led the Crimson’s blue line in points and ranked third in the country in per-game scoring among defensemen (1.11). For these accomplishments, he earned CCM/AHCA First Team All-America honors, marking the sixth consecutive year in which a Harvard player has done so.
Walsh (8–19—27) was the veteran on Harvard’s back end, where he added his threatening powerplay presence and savvy puck-moving skills much like Rathbone.
For essentially the entire campaign, Walsh skated beside first-year Henry Thrun (3–18—21), whose precocious two-way game quickly received league-wide attention. For many onlookers, the freshman was the most effective player on the ice in the Crimson’s season-opening win over Dartmouth.
Thrun’s effective play did not stop at his debut; in March, he was named a finalist for the ECAC’s Best Defensive Defenseman award. The point man’s season was emblematic of the hefty contributions Harvard received from its teenagers in 2019-2020.
“I felt prepared for [my debut], but I definitely knew that it was going to be a tough game, obviously being my first college game and playing a team like Dartmouth that we had so much history with,” Thrun said. “Things went well both individually and team-wise. For me, it was super cool.”
Due to significant losses over the summer on the blue line—the team returned just two members from last year’s top six—the performances of several less experienced rearguards were critical in rounding out the Crimson defense this season. Sophomore Marshall Rifai (1–7—8) skated in 30 games in 2019-2020 after seeing action in just six the year prior. His skating and puck-movement at times added a dynamic edge to the third pair. Freshman Ryan Siedem (3–5—8) also bolstered Harvard’s blue line. He skated in every game this season and completed the top four, playing opposite Rathbone.
In net, Gibson (11-8-3, 2.61 GAA, .916 SV%) earned a majority of the starts this season, competing with Gornet (4-2-3, 2.64 GAA, .914 SV%) who posted very similar numbers. The freshman frequently impressed with his rebound control and confidence between the pipes, logging eight appearances with at least a .950 save percentage. His performances tracked his team’s: when the Crimson suffered from inconsistency, Gibson often did, too. Nevertheless, the backstop put forth a promising first collegiate campaign on which he can build moving forward.
Next season, another highly touted freshman class will join a skilled squad which has benefitted from an extra year of seasoning in 2019-2020. While the status of the 2020-2021 college hockey season remains unclear due to the coronavirus pandemic, the team that Harvard expects to ice next year looks to be as deep and offensively dynamic as any in recent memory.
“We had a bit of a younger team this year, and we learned a lot from starting off really well to the season ending in a crazy way like it did,” Badini said. “I know that the guys returning are going to take all the experiences they had this year into next year, and I think they’re going to be really successful moving forward.”
As always, the program will be tasked with replacing several losses. One such loss is the early departure of Badini, who chose to forego his senior season and inked a professional contract with the Anaheim Ducks organization in late March. For now, Badini is the only player whom the Crimson will lose prematurely. Walsh will return for his senior campaign, bolstering the depth and experience of the back end. Meanwhile, Rathbone has yet to come out publicly with a decision on his professional future. His return would be similarly valuable for Harvard.
The program will also bid farewell to five seniors. Among them is Krusko (3–3—6), who played in 131 contests while seeing his role fluctuate throughout his four years in Cambridge. He chipped in at crucial times during the Crimson’s 2016-2017 Frozen Four season, earning Beanpot MVP as a rookie.
Gornet, also a fourth-year, has provided high-quality backstopping at crucial times throughout his career while receiving the praises of teammates for his character and veteran presence. Fellow graduates Frédéric Grégoire (1–2—3) and Colton Kerfoot (3–5—8) both played over 80 games for Harvard and enjoyed especially productive junior seasons in which they saw their roles expand. Justin Szeto (0–1—1) served as a spark plug for coach Donato over the last two seasons and is the inaugural recipient of the Alford/Brown Faculty Fellow Prize for unsung contributions to the team.
If 2019-2020 demonstrated anything, it is that talent alone does not always yield results. Next season, the Crimson will look to capitalize on its skill while integrating its experience.
“We got to win,” said Drury, when asked what has to change about Harvard hockey next season. “In my tenure here, we haven’t brought home too much hardware. We certainly have the talent for it next year…. We all understand that the time to win is now.”
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.
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