CHICAGO — The first national semifinal at the 2017 Frozen Four could be a back-and-forth battle with two teams that can skate up and down the sheet.
Harvard finds itself at college hockey’s penultimate event for the first time since 1994 while Minnesota Duluth looks to repeat what it did in 2001.
Harvard won the ECAC regular season and tournament championship en route to the No. 1 seed in the East Region. The Crimson upended Providence and Air Force to reach the United Center.
Minnesota Duluth finished second in the NCHC regular season, but won the tournament championship in St. Paul. The Bulldogs knocked off Ohio State and Boston University to win the West Regional in Fargo.
A total of 13 seniors will be dressed in the game — six for UMD and seven for Harvard. The leading scorer for both teams is a senior. It’s a rarity in this day and age of college hockey to see good programs keep players around. There is the added pressure in these situations for players who could be playing in their final college hockey game.
“It's been a real important part of our team to have guys that have experience that realize the magnitude of the one-and-done scenario, and I think they've been able to keep us focused and really understand how important each and every moment is in their senior year,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato.
“I think our leaders have been really good. Our core -- not just our captains, but just our upperclassmen, certainly our senior group. They've had some success and kind of wanted to drive to take it another step, which they've done now, but they've been a big part of that. They've been our best players too. That's always important when your older guys, your key guys are your best players,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin concurred.
The Crimson lost three games in a row in the middle of January, but are 16-0-1 since then. They are a team that can run and gun with anyone. Their pace and speed are evident to the casual eye right away.
Harvard’s top-ranked scoring offense is what catches most people’s eye, but the defense has gotten better as the season has progressed. Freshmen Adam Fox and John Marino, known more for their puck-carrying ability, have gotten better in their own end. Junior Merrick Madsen, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, has continued to get better between the pipes.
Most of all, Harvard does a good job of defending with their feet and not allowing its opposition to possess the puck for large stretches of time. The Crimson now rank fourth nationally in scoring defense.
“I think it's something that the group takes great pride in. Obviously, our goaltender is a big key to that. I think we really want to use our speed to be quick -- you know, quick to defend, quick to break the puck out, and really play to a tempo that we're comfortable at and can play at,” said Donato, who was on the only other Crimson team to win it all in 1989.
Donato realizes his team has its work cut out against a very solid UMD team that has been among the best in the nation all season.
“I think they're a very impressive team. I think they're extremely well coached. I think they have great balance,” began Donato. “I think they have some size and strength and defensive prowess, and certainly up front I think they have some play makers, and they have some size and strength as well.”
For UMD, it will be important to use its size and strength down low and establish a forecheck to prevent Harvard from transitioning quickly from defense to offense.
“They're quick. They transition well. They don't give up the puck. They make plays. Their defense gets involved, especially guys like Fox, who's a tremendous player back there, very elusive, smart,” complimented Sandelin.
Besides establishing a presence down low, controlling the neutral zone and limiting time and space for the Crimson to exploit them in transition will be crucial for the Bulldogs.
The winner of this game will face the winner of the night’s second semifinal between Denver and Notre Dame. The championship game is set for Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT.
Minnesota Duluth Lines:
14 Alex Iafallo - 19 Dominic Toninato - 13 Joey Anderson
8 Kyle Osterberg - 7 Adam Johnson - 20 Karson Kuhlman
27 Riley Tufte - 11 Avery Petseron - 39 Parker MacKay
17 Blake Young - 22 Jared Thomas - 16 Billy Exell
4 Neal Pionk - 10 Brenden Kotyk
21 Carson Soucy - 15 Willie Raskob
5 Nick Wolff - 3 Dan Molenar
35 Hunter Miska
16 Ryan Donato - 14 Alex Kerfoot - 77 Lewis Zerter-Gossage
9 Luke Esposito - 17 Sean Malone - 2 Tyler Moy
72 Phil Zielonka - 19 Jake Horton - 13 Nathan Krusko
22 Devin Tringale - 11 Ty Pelton-Byce - 44 Michael Floodstrang
25 Wiley Sherman - 12 John Marino
26 Jacob Olson - 18 Adam Fox
27 Viktor Dombrovskiy - 5 Clay Anderson
31 Merrick Madsen