Thursday, November 15, 2012

Men's Hockey November Review

Where We Are Now
The first month of the 2012-2013 campaign has brought both promise and worry to Crimson nation. After easily defeating McGill and Bentley at home, the Crimson struggled to a win over Brown before losing to Union and Yale by a combined score of 11-3. A shutout of bottom-dwellers RPI momentarily stopped the bleeding, but Harvard faces a big test this weekend as they go on the road for the first time to visit Cornell and Colgate. The Crimson are tied for fifth in the ECAC with a conference record of 2-2. Princeton and Quinnipiac also have four points each, but only through two games. Regardless, if Harvard is going to continue to struggle against better-skating teams with multiple scoring lines, they need to get every possible point from this weekend.

The Good Through Five Games
Harvard’s top-ranked recruiting class has been phenomenal. It is no exaggeration that Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo have been the team’s best forwards so far. Vesey leads the team in scoring with five goals and Criscuolo has stood out defensively while also finding the net twice. Not to be outdone, second round pick Brian Hart has picked up three points and been the most physical Crimson skater so far. Finally, Coach Donato moved Desmond Bergin up to the second pairing across from Patrick McNally this past weekend, as the freshman has demonstrated good patience and decision-making in all three zones.

Speaking of McNally, he and Tommy O’Regan have spearheaded a sophomore class that continues to build on solid seasons last year. The flashes of creative brilliance we saw last year have become a game-by-game occurrence from both players, who have come into the year with an infectious confidence to match their talent. Colin Blackwell has also been among Harvard’s best forwards, although a head injury has kept him out of the last two games as a precaution.

Finally, and most importantly, Raphael Girard’s play in goal is a welcome sign for Harvard fans after last year’s inconsistencies. The vast majority of the ten goals scored by Union and Yale were not the fault of number 30, without whom both games would’ve been much more lopsided. In his first two career shutouts against Bentley and RPI, Girard made several all-world saves. The Crimson have found their goaltender.

The Bad Through Five Games
The breakout looked nonfunctional against Yale and Union. Pinned in their own zone for shifts on end, the Crimson could not gain the puck on their sticks in neutral ice, either losing it along the boards or wasting clearing attempts. The few times that Danny Biega or McNally got fed up and brought the puck up themselves, their rushes were closed off at center and the cycle would begin again. Harvard needs to find a solution against those teams that have experienced defensemen and several lines of capable forecheckers. Part of the problem is inexperience. With so few upperclassman forwards, it’s been difficult for Coach Donato to find reliable line combinations for all situations. As a result, Biega and Dan Ford have been on the ice protecting the net way too much for their own good, only compounding the problem.

More surprisingly, the powerplay is at a pitiful 10 percent for the year and only 1-18 in conference play. Even more dumbfounding, the Crimson return four of five players from last year’s first unit, and Alex Killorn has been replaced by Jimmy Vesey. Opponents have been content to play conservatively and simply take away the front of the net from the Crimson, and the one-timers from the perimeter have not been on target. Fortunately, the poor conversion rate is also a matter of luck, as the Crimson have seen some fantastic saves made on otherwise strong possessions. This team has too much talent for these numbers to continue.

MVP So Far
Jimmy Vesey. There isn’t even a debate. He’s been the most consistent and most prolific player in a Crimson sweater bar none. 

Cornell is a huge test for the Crimson. Ranked No. 10 nationally, the Big Red are always a tough opponent on the road, but they play a much slower and less skilled game than Union or Yale do. If Harvard can exploit its offensive advantage, the Crimson will pick up their first marquee win of the year.

In the long run, the play of Girard and a powerplay that has the laws of probability on its side bode well for the Crimson in terms of a top-4 finish, provided that Blackwell returns soon and the other skilled forwards stay healthy. If the Crimson want to compete for the conference title, however, they’re going to have to rapidly improve their defensive and neutral zone play against aggressive and skilled teams. Whether this maturation can occur over the course of a single season with so many fresh faces getting big minutes is an open question.

ECAC November Power Rankings

An early-season review of the Crimson will be posted later today, but for now, we have our first ECAC Power Rankings of the year. The hockey-inclined members of WHRB dislike preseason rankings, but with a month of hockey behind us, it’s high time to make some controversial assertions.

1. Dartmouth                         4-0-0 (5-0-1)

The winners of the Ivy Showcase have shot to No. 12 in the national rankings after a convincing triumph over Yale and a close victory over Union. The last undefeated team nationally, Dartmouth is killing 96% of penalties, thanks in large part to the fantastic play of Cab Morris in net. Sophomore Tyler Sikura has emerged as one of the most dangerous forwards in the conference with 11 points through six games.

2. Union                         3-1-0 (6-2-1)

Outside of the loss to Dartmouth, no blemishes on the schedule so far for the defending champs. The Dutchmen destroyed Harvard and are ranked No. 7 in the country. Most importantly, an MRI this Monday revealed no serious damage to the leg of Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick, who has plenty of time to return to his goaltending duties as the team does not play this weekend.

3. Cornell                        1-2-1 (3-2-1)

The poor conference record is a surprise for the Big Red, who’ve lost to Quinnipiac and Princeton. A 76% penalty kill might be to blame, especially given Cornell’s low-scoring style. Two wins over No. 14 Colorado College and a national ranking of their own at No. 10 keep Harvard’s top rivals high in these rankings for now.

4. Yale                                    2-2 (3-2-1)

The Bulldogs looked quite good against Harvard and St. Lawrence but were trounced by the Big Green and shut out by Clarkson at home. One thing is for sure – the talent is there to earn a conference bye. The upperclassmen forwards, led by Antoine Laganiere and Andrew Miller, are having stellar seasons, and Jeff Malcolm continues to hold down the starting job in net.

5. Quinnipiac                         2-0 (5-3-1)

The Bobcats garnered 22 votes in the national rankings this week after a win over Cornell and three points from two games against Ohio State. Scoring has not come easy, but that doesn’t matter much when Eric Hartzell has a 1.65 GAA in eight starts. A weekend at Clarkson and St. Lawrence provides a good opportunity to separate from the pack early in the season.

6. Harvard                        2-2 (3-2-0)

A hard team to judge so far, the No. 17 Crimson have looked great against bad teams and vice versa. The freshman forwards, led by Jimmy Vesey, are as spectacular as advertised, but a faltering powerplay and sloppy work in the defensive zone prevented Harvard from competing with Yale and Union. Raphael Girard has shushed any talk of a goalie controversy left over from last year.

7. St. Lawrence            0-1-1 (5-2-1)

Despite only one point in conference play so far, the No. 16 Saints stay in the middle of this ranking thanks to impressive out-of-conference play, including a win over No. 9 Western Michigan. Kyle Flanagan is averaging two points per game as St. Lawrence has converted a fourth of their powerplays, rendering an 0-7 night in a loss to Yale all the more confusing.

8. Clarkson                        1-0-1 (1-4-4)

The Golden Knights lost their first four games. They tied the next three, entering the ECAC season winless, before suddenly taking three points from Yale and Brown. This strange team has defied analysis so far, but they’re going to need to score more goals to be competitive.

9. Princeton                         2-0 (2-2)

The Tigers scored three goals in the last five minutes to steal a game from Cornell, then shut out Colgate 4-0. They did not look good in the Ivy Showcase or their exhibitions, however, and it remains to be seen whether this team will exceed its low expectations. Princeton was ranked 11th in both the media and coaches preseason polls.

10. Brown                         0-2-2 (1-3-2)

The Bears came out with ties against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, and kept Harvard close till late in the third of a 3-2 loss. The team lacks scoring depth and life for Marco de Filippo in net has been difficult, as he is averaging over 30 shots against per game. So far, he’s performed admirably, and the Bears are once again displaying the never-say-die attitude that has become familiar to ECAC fans.

11. Colgate                        0-3-1 (4-6-1)

The Raiders tied Cornell and took Quinnipiac to overtime two weeks after beating the Bobcats in Cape Cod. The 4-0 loss to Princeton, however, might be more indicative of Colgate’s ability. They’ve been below average on special teams and neither Eric Mihalik nor freshman Spencer Finney look like viable answers in net to the ECAC’s best offenses.

12. RPI                        0-4-0 (1-5-2)

The Engineers have suffered from a difficult schedule, with their four losses coming to Harvard, Dartmouth, and Union twice. Unfortunately, easier opponents won’t necessarily improve RPI’s record, as the team has looked entirely lifeless in those games and ranks 10th or worse in the conference in every major statistic.