In scouting upcoming NCAA Tournament opponent from Nebraska-Omaha, Harvard coach Ted Donato cited more similarities than differences between his Crimson, champions of the ECAC tournament, and the Mavericks of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“Both teams have a couple of lines that can really get up and down the ice, have some players who can beat you one-on-one, both teams have had good goaltending for the season, and I think both teams have had difficult schedules to play,’’ said Donato.
But only one team will have the luxury of suiting up Jimmy Vesey, the nation’s leading goal scorer with 31.
That will be Harvard, which is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2006, thanks in large part to Vesey.
“I would say we’re happy, first and foremost, that Jimmy Vesey plays for us,’’ said Donato, whose Crimson (21-12-3) play Nebraska-Omaha (23-10-4) in the Midwest Regional Saturday night in South Bend, Ind.
“I think Jimmy is difficult to shut down sometimes because he’s so versatile,’’ Donato said. “He can also pass the puck, he can beat you off the rush offensively, he can beat you with his shot. But he’s also comfortable standing in front of the net, taking a beating to get rebounds. I think that’s what makes him such a dynamic offensive player.’’
So much so, Donato joked, “Jimmy Vesey steps off the bus looking to score a goal.’’
Vesey, the ECAC Player of the Year, earned most outstanding player honors as he set an ECAC tournament record with nine goals. But Vesey’s contributions were better measured not just by the quantity of goals but the quality, with deciding goals in five of Harvard’s six ECAC tournament victories.
“I think at this point in the year everyone has their roles pretty well established,’’ Vesey said. “My role is to bring goals and offense on the team. I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver for the team.’’
But teammates view the 6-foot-3-inch junior wing from North Reading as more than just a closer.
“It’s a game-changer with Jimmy on the ice,’’ said Kyle Criscuolo, Vesey’s junior linemate who has 17 goals and 30 assists this season. “It doesn’t matter who’s on him, he’s a competitor and he’s going to bring it every time he’s on the ice.’’
Vesey always has deflected praise to his teammates, but Criscuolo delighted in breaking the news to Vesey Monday via text message he had won the Walter Brown Award, presented annually to New England’s best American-born Division 1 player.
Vesey finished ahead of Boston University freshman phenom Jack Eichel. Both are listed among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
“Congrats,’’ Criscuolo texted Vesey.
“For what?’’ came Vesey’s reply.
“For winning the Walter Brown Award.’’
“Really?’’ Vesey texted back. “I thought Eichel was going to win it.’’
Vesey’s performance in the ECAC tournament seemed to cement it.
“He’s a really unselfish player,’’ Criscuolo said, pointing to Vesey’s 26 assists this season. “Sometimes his linemates don’t score the goals all the time when he makes good plays. But he’s a very dynamic player in all areas of the game and helps our team in more ways than one.’’
Vesey buried the winner with 2:26 remaining in Game 1 of the best-of-three quarterfinal series against Yale, helping the Crimson snap a 10-game losing streak to their Ancient Eight rival.
“It was gratifying to beat Yale,’’ Vesey said. “Then to beat them in double overtime. It was one of my favorite moments of the year.’’
Vesey capped a 3-2 double-overtime victory in Game 3 when he corralled a rebound of Patrick McNally’s blue-line blast and stuffed home the winner. Vesey then scored four goals in the semifinals and final.
“Seems like every time we’ve needed a big goal this year, Jimmy’s been the one to get it,’’ said McNally. “I know in that Yale game — the double-OT game — a lot of guys were saying, ‘If we keep ourselves in this long enough, Jimmy’s going to get one.’ And he did. So it always helps to have a guy like that on your team.’’
“In tight games, you’re always hoping the puck gets on his stick,’’ Criscuolo said. “Because you know he’s not going to make a mistake.’’
Finding the back of the net always came for Vesey and his brother, Nolan, a freshman at the University of Maine. It was part of their DNA. Their father, Jim, played four years at Merrimack College, where he still ranks as the all-time leading scorer, before an NHL career that ended at age 29 because of a pair of shoulder injuries.
“He’s always had the knack, as has my other boy, Nolan, for scoring goals,’’ said Jim Vesey. “I could always score and now my two boys are scoring, but they both seem to get big goals at big times. They were both born with that natural gift of scoring goals.
“You can’t teach that. You can teach everything else, but one thing I harped on with both of them was to learn to be great skaters. They’ve both been good skaters and they both know how to score. So when you have that it’s a pretty good combination.’’
The Nashville Predators were so intrigued by Jimmy Vesey’s offensive potential they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012. This season, as Vesey showed he’s likely ready for the NHL, the Predators have bided their time, per his father’s request.
“They have been there at all the games since then and they have not bothered Jimmy one bit,’’ Jim Vesey said. “They have made it known they would like to have him come out, but I made it known it was going to be up to Jimmy. It’s not a slight on any other school, but I said, ‘It’s Harvard.’ ’’
Jim Vesey is confident his 21-year-old son knows the value of an education, especially the value of a Harvard education. But with each clutch goal he’s scored for the Crimson, Vesey has forestalled his decision on whether to turn pro.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be one of those decisions where, in his heart, he’s got to be 100 percent committed to it,’’ Jim Vesey said. “It’s a tough, tough decision, but I think it’s a no-lose decision.’’
“It’s definitely a tough decision that I have to make,’’ Jimmy Vesey said. “I’ll sit down with my family at the end of the season and decide what’s best for me. Harvard has just been a very enjoyable experience for me these last three years . . . but I’m just focused now on keeping Harvard going in the tournament.’’