Harvard will rely on upperclassmen like Michaud (left) and Tallett during its season-opening road stretch (photo courtesy DSPics.com).
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--For the Harvard men's hockey team, the wait is nearly over.
The Crimson players and coaches begin official practices for Harvard's 110th season Friday, about seven months after the end of the 2008-09 campaign and more than a month after the team returned to campus and began captain's practices. With talent and depth at all three positions, Harvard is prepared to challenge for the ECAC Hockey, Ivy League and Beanpot championships.
Captain and pre-season All-American Alex Biega and fellow senior Doug Rogers have been on the ice for every game over the last three seasons and lead an offense that returns its top seven scorers. Add a pair of talented junior goaltenders and a recruiting class ranked fifth nationally by Inside College Hockey, and optimism is high around Bright Hockey Center.
Harvard has reached the title game of the ECAC Hockey championship in six of the last eight years and finished the 2008-09 regular season with a six-game unbeaten run that included wins over Ivy League rivals Cornell and Princeton, both ranked sixth in the nation. An upset loss to Brown in the playoffs spelled an early end to the season, however, and the Crimson squad is eager to pick up where it left off at the end of last regular season.
"We are excited about getting going and about the team we're going to be able to put on the ice," said Ted Donato '91, The Robert D. Ziff '88 Head Coach for Harvard Men's Ice Hockey. "We're going to try to get off to a good start and get better every day. I'm confident that if we continue to improve, we'll be able to compete for our league titles and a trip back to the NCAA tournament."
Harvard's most successful teams in recent years have been backboned by strong goaltending, and this year's Crimson looks ready to continue that trend. Ryan Carroll anchored the Crimson's successful late-season run last season, allowing two goals or fewer in seven of his nine starts.
Fellow junior Kyle Richter rejoins the team, seeking to return to his form from 2007-08, when he earned the Dryden Award as ECAC Hockey's top goaltender. He led ECAC Hockey in goals-against average (1.82) and save percentage (.935) in league play and set Harvard records for games (34), starts (34) and minutes played (2,023) that season.
A group of experienced veterans will protect the defensive zone in front of the goalies. Alex Biega, Harvard's 116th captain, leads the way. Last season, the two-time All-ECAC selection became the first defenseman in more than two decades to lead Harvard in assists (16) and ranked second among ECAC defensemen in league scoring (three goals, 13 assists). He was also solid on the defensive end, leading the team with a +8 rating in league play.
"We are fortunate to be able to rely on a talented, experienced group of players on defense, both on the blue line and in goal," said Donato. "It starts with our captain, Alex Biega, who is really one of the best defensemen anywhere in college hockey. We've got a good number of guys that have shown they can perform at a high level, and we're counting on them to do that consistently this season."
Harvard returns six defensemen who played in 10 or more games last season and four upperclassmen who suited up for at least 30 of the team's 31 contests. Seniors Chad Morin and Ian Tallett and junior Chris Huxley helped the Crimson lead ECAC Hockey in league scoring defense and reach the conference championship game two seasons ago.
Rogers, an All-Ivy League center, is lone senior among the Crimson's 10 returning letterwinners at forward. He led Harvard with 21 points last season and is the team's top active scorer with 77 points on 28 goals and 49 assists. He is a top producer on the power play and has won more than 60 percent of his faceoffs in each of his three seasons.
Harvard also welcomes back a handful of forwards who scored six goals each as part of a balanced attack last season and are looking to break out this time around. Michael Biega ranked third on the team with 17 points, while fellow junior Matt McCollem and sophomore Alex Killorn registered 14 points each. Sophomore Daniel Moriarty and junior Pier-Olivier Michaud are coming off 13-point campaigns.
"We're certainly looking to score more goals this year, and we believe we have the returning players and newcomers in place to make that happen," said Donato. "Doug Rogers has been a top forward in our league for three seasons. He is our senior leader up front, and we have a strong group behind him ready to step up and have a big year for us."
A highly touted group of eight freshmen joins the ranks this season. Louis Leblanc was the 2009 first-round draft pick of his hometown Montreal Canadiens, while fellow forward Alex Fallstrom was taken in the fourth round by the Minnesota Wild. Defenseman Danny Biega, the younger brother of Alex and Michael, has been rated an "A" prospect by National Hockey League Central Scouting.
The Crimson will again look to gain an advantage on special teams. Harvard led ECAC Hockey in power-play efficiency in league play at 19.2 percent last season, ranked second in combined special teams at 52.7 percent. A year earlier, the team was successful on a league-best 58 percent of its league special-teams situations, including 91.3 percent of its penalty kills.
Donato and his staff and players must hit the ground running. They have just a week of full practice prior to their first competitive action, an Oct. 23 exhibition against McGill. The regular season begins a week later with a visit to Ivy rival Dartmouth, the first of five straight road games to begin the season. Three of those games, against the Big Green, Cornell and Princeton, are against teams that joined the Crimson in the top five of the ECAC Hockey coaches' and media's preseason polls. Harvard, which opens its home schedule Nov. 20 against St. Lawrence, was selected fourth in both polls.
The slate includes the usual 22 games of the always-competitive ECAC Hockey regular season and the 58th Beanpot tournament, which gets underway Feb. 1 against Boston College in a rematch of the 2008 Beanpot title game. Harvard also hosts home games against the Eagles (Dec. 9) and defending national champion Boston University (Nov. 24) and visits Western power Minnesota for two games (Jan. 8-9).
All the challenging matchups should all add up to an exciting season, but for now the Crimson is happy to be taking the ice together, getting ready for the Big Green on Oct. 30.