Providence, RI — NCAA Tournament teams aren’t made overnight. Years of recruiting and developing talent go into the making of a program that can be worthy of playing late into March and April.
The progression and maturity of Harvard and Providence took two different forms. After losing two superstars, Harvard found a new identity and returners stepped up to create one of the best teams in college hockey from the beginning of the 2016-17 season. For Providence, a middling first half proved to be training ground for a young team that had lost its core.
While the roads traveled to Friday’s first semifinal of the East Regional at the Dunkin Donuts Center are vastly different, both teams grew into championship contenders. Crimson coach Ted Donato had to figure out how his team would replace the offensive production of Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo, who combined for 43 goals a season ago. The other part of that dynamic first line, Alex Kerfoot, was expected to be a key cog, but it was going to be more scoring by committee than in the past.
"Coming into the season, I was pretty optimistic. I think as a coach, you have to be that way by nature, but I thought we would have good balance," said Donato.
While the scoring has largely been by committee, several players have taken huge jumps from 2015-16 to 2016-17. Leading scorer Sean Malone went from 19 points as a junior to 42 points this season. Classmate Tyler Moy went from 19 to 41. Seniors Luke Esposito and sophomores Ryan Donato and Lewis Zerter-Gossage have all made significant jumps in their production.
"Obviously, we returned Alexander Kerfoot, who had a couple of big years coming in, but I really felt guys like Esposito and Moy could get it to another level. Then, when you add in some of the sophomores – Ryan Donato and Lewis Zerter-Gossage – I thought that we could be more effective scoring by committee. I can also add that a healthy Sean Malone can make a lot better coach. He’s been great. We’ve been able to keep him healthy, which has been a struggle the last few years," explained Donato.
"It's hard to believe, but losing Vesey and Criscuolo could have been a good thing for the Crimson as it put more of an emphasis on the team's scoring depth.
People will ask certain things about Vesey and Criscuolo and it’s nothing taken away from what they did as hockey players, but they were so good that it allowed guys to sit back and expect them take over games," Kerfoot explained.
"Having them gone has obviously hurt our team a ton, but it allowed other guys to step up. We can’t just rely on one or two guys. We have a plethora of guys who can step up in different games. Right now, that line of Sean [Malone], Tyler [Moy], and Luke [Esposito] has impressed in the playoffs. In any given night, we can have anyone step up and be the guy," said Kerfoot.
As much success as Harvard has enjoyed this season, it will mostly be for nought if the Crimson don't move on in the NCAA Tournament. The school's first Beanpot in over 20 years and ECAC Hockey Championships are great, but Kerfoot knows there is still work ahead of his group to truly be remembered as an elite team.
"There is a fine line between really good hockey teams and good teams. We thought that we’ve had a really good team the past couple of years, but we weren’t able to capitalize when it came down to the NCAA Tournament. I think if we had won a couple of more games, people would have looked at those teams a little differently. We have a team-first mentality up and down on this team," said Kerfoot.
Harvard lost just five games all season, but three of them came consecutively midway through January. The slip in the road provided Donato and his coaching staff with an opportunity to re-evaluate the team and look at what needed to be corrected.
"It was a chance to take a deep breath and look at what we needed to do to be successful as a team, to watch some video and make things very clear. As a group, I think we came out of there determined to get back to the way we were playing. Every season has its ebbs and flows, and that certainly was a down moment. I think our response has been really good," Donato reflected.
Donato, who was part of the 1989 NCAA Championship team as a player at Harvard, said there are similarities in the leadership structure.
"I think the one common thread is great leadership. When I think back to the ’89 team, I think of guys like Lane MacDonald, C.J. Young, and Allen Bourbeau. Some very talented guys, but guys that led us in big games. I think this group, with guys like Sean Malone and Alexander Kerfoot, Merrick Madsen, they have played well in big games," began Donato.
"This is a group really driven by some great senior leadership. I expect us to come out and play well," Donato continued.
The season had significantly more ups and downs for Providence, a team that had to replace nine seniors, including its four leading scorers and two top defensemen. The Friars also had to break in a new goaltender after Nick Ellis turned pro early to sign with the Edmonton Oilers' organization.
"The challenging part was staying patient through the growth curve and keeping people around us patient," said Providence coach Nate Leaman. "We had to be patient. Any team that turns over 10 players is going to have to go through that."
This is the fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Friars, including their 2015 NCAA Championship, so despite all the losses, expectations were still high, which made the lows harder to handle.
"The hardest part was that we were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason. I remember walking to lunch with the assistants one day and they made a good comment: We’re not there now, but we can be there," Leaman recalled.
"That set the tone for our staff during the season. We knew that we had the potential to get to this point and beyond, but there were going to be some growing pains.
The Friars were under .500 for portions of the first half and had just one win in Hockey East until January. What was left of the veteran leadership played a huge part in keeping the team together and ready to push forward.
"I give this team and these seniors a lot of credit. I was reminded this week that we were one game away from being in last place in the league at one point. The guys did a good job of staying with the process and taking it one game at a time. I don’t think you can give that credit to the coaches. You have to give that credit to the seniors. Our leaders could have easily panicked and gone off on their own page, and they didn’t. They stuck with it. They kept all of the guys in the room sticking with it. We kept improving, kept improving, and found our game," said Leaman.
The team's leading scorer, Brian Pinho, has stepped up and contributed in a large way on and off the ice this season. Wearing an 'A,' he's become the team's top center and produced offensively. He's bought into Leaman's approach and taken the wins over the personal accolades.
"We struggled at the beginning of the year with a lot of new faces. The new guys were learning a new system. We’ve been playing our hockey in the second half and playing as a group of five. It’s been working for us," said Pinho.
Sophomore goaltender Hayden Hawkey, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, had his own ups and downs during the first three months of the season, but has improved as the team defense in front of him has progressed.
"We’re a young team with a lot of guys that haven’t played together. We have a lot of new faces. We got to know each other a lot better as the year went along and we knew what to expect from each guy. Anytime you come to a new team, there is a learning curve, but I feel like the more we played, the better we got," said Hawkey.
Both teams have defensemen who can really skate, move the puck and generate offense from the blue line. Harvard's dynamic duo of Adam Fox and John Marino could have a huge impact on Friday's game. Fox's 31 assists in 32 games leads the nation in that category among defensemen and freshmen. It ranks fourth overall. Marino hasn't put up quite the gaudy numbers, but he's been excellent moving the puck and defending with his feet.
"There’s not a lot of room out there. It’s probably a little bit of a shocker to us coming on the ice after playing last weekend in Lake Placid. I expect it to be a real physical, fast game. Our speed and quickness will be important to get to pucks first and win battles. Our transition is important. I expect there won’t be a lot of room going through the neutral zone either way," said Donato.
For Providence, the emergence of freshmen defensemen Jacob Bryson and Spenser Young has been a big reason for the success in the second half. Along with junior Jake Walman, one of the best-skating defensemen in the country, the Friars have been able to transition from defense to offense and get pucks in deep.
"Our skating and our d-core is the strength of our team. That’s what we return from last year. We lost [Tom] Parisi and [John] Gilmour, but with Spence and Bryson coming in, we thought we would be OK in that area," Leaman said.
With Harvard's tremendous team speed, retrieving pucks quickly and then creating good layers and gaps in transition could be a major boost for the Friars in this game.
"We have to gap. We have to take away space. We have to force dumps. Those are things that we can do and try to do. I really like the way our D retrieve. It’s a tough retrieving rate because there’s not a lot of room behind the net and things like that, but I like the way that we can retrieve pucks," Leaman explained.
Crimson Boast Power Surge
Harvard's power play is a threat Providence will be focused on heading into Friday's game. The Crimson possess the fourth best power play percentage in Division I while the Friars have the eighth best penalty kill nationally.
"They have very top-end forwards. They have good depth up front. They have a good power play. We’re not going to change too much. I think they have two lines that can really go. You’re not going to change too much with your team within a week. There’s some minor adjustments that we’ll make, but the guys know how we want to manage this game and how we want to go out and get after it," Leaman explained.
"The first thing is that they have a very good power play, so we have to be disciplined and stay out of the box. That’s going to help us a lot. If we possess the puck down low, try and play a hard game, and play tough and get pucks to their net, I think that will create success for us," added Pinho.
Paying attention to details and having a good goaltender can be the key to a good penalty kill, something not lost on Providence senior defenseman Josh Monk.
"I think it’s overall team defense and commitment to the whole team getting back hard and playing defense. Our goalie has been very good for us and made some big saves, but overall team defense is something that we pride ourselves on. We’ve done a good job, especially in the second half keeping shots to the outside and down. That’s helped us a lot," said Monk.
It helps having elite talent to roll out for two separate power play units, but Donato credited associate head coach Paul Pearl for the success on the man advantage.
"I think coach (Paul) Pearl does a tremendous job with it. Two groups that have been highly productive," said Donato. "We put in a good amount of time in practice. There is an excellent utilization of the talent that is out there. We have two groups that compete with each other. I think coach Pearl makes great adjustments both in game and during practice. It’s been an important part for us and I think he does a tremendous job with it."
Puck drop is set for 4 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Not much needs to be said to motivate a team at this time of the year when a loss means the end of the season.