When the Class of 2017 arrived in the Yard four years ago, the checklist was as long as the Anderson Bridge. Harvard’s hockey team hadn’t done this in that long, hadn’t done that in this long. For too many opponents, they had been a welcome night off.
“I remember sitting down with them when they were freshmen, and we talked about what their expectations were and what they wanted and how we were going to get there,” said coach Ted Donato.
“They were willing to take a look at how they were perceived around college hockey and around campus and how they could change that to get the perception that they wanted.”
This season, the Crimson (26-5-2) have collected more trophies than a 12-year-old suburban soccer player. Their first Beanpot championship since 1993. Their first outright Ivy crown since 2006. Their first ECAC regular-season title (shared with Union) since 1994. And their second ECAC tournament title in three years.
“It’s certainly really special,” said forward Sean Malone, whose teammates are unbeaten in a school-record 16 straight games going into Friday afternoon’s NCAA East Regional encounter with Providence (22-11-5) at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“When we were freshmen, I think we won maybe 10 games all year. Now, winning sort of seems the new norm.”
The Magnificent 7 seniors — Malone, cocaptains Alexander Kerfoot and Devin Tringale, fellow forwards Luke Esposito, Tyler Moy, and Phil Zielonka, and defenseman Clay Anderson — have produced a renaissance by the river and brought back the glory days of the 1980s when the Crimson qualified for the national tournament seven times, reached the Frozen Four four times, and won their first title.
That’s the one piece of unclaimed hardware left after seven consecutive first-round exits dating to 2002, and the Crimson are determined to get to Chicago next month and collect it.
“It’s a huge incentive,” said Tringale, whose colleagues were ousted by Nebraska-Omaha and Boston College the last two years. “This would be a really big step.
“We thought we could have had W’s the past two years and we came up short and we were really disappointed about that. This year is a chance to make good on that.”
The next step is dispatching a Friar squad that won the national title in TD Garden two years ago, will be playing with an extra week’s rest, and is skating on what amounts to home ice.
“You come to college hockey to play in fun atmospheres, and playing Providence in Providence in the NCAA Tournament is going to be fun,” said Kerfoot. “I don’t know what to expect on Friday — but I can’t imagine it’s going to be worse than Lynah [Cornell’s rink].”
Getting Harvard back to the Frozen Four was the prime reason, along with the diploma, why the Class of 2017 signed on.
“We knew there was talent coming in,” said Tringale. “We also knew that this is an historic program and you have one of the best educations available in the world. A lot of us are like-minded guys, and those were the things that brought us all here to Cambridge.”
That’s also why they’ve all stayed the course. At a time when many drafted collegians are decamping to the NHL after a couple of years, Harvard has had uncommon success keeping its players in uniform.
“When you come to a school like Harvard, you know what you’re getting into,” said Kerfoot, who was drafted by the Devils five years ago. “You’re not here for one-and-done. You’re here for everything about the school.
“You’re leaving a lot on the table if you’re leaving Harvard before you graduate. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys here who’ve stayed. It has a trickle-down effect. When you see a guy like Jimmy [Vesey] who doesn’t leave, you can ask yourself the question, why are you leaving?
“If a guy who’s up for the Hobey Baker Award is choosing to stay, then there’s no excuse for not staying.”
The Crimson’s seniors are the most productive in the country, racking up 185 points and scoring half of the goals for an offense that leads the nation with more than four a game. The second line of Malone (18 goals), Esposito (16), and Moy (18) tallied 15 points last weekend in victories over defending tournament titlist Quinnipiac and Cornell.
“Obviously the ECAC championship was special,” said Malone, who turned a natural hat trick against the Bobcats. “But it didn’t seem as special as it was when we won it sophomore year because we needed to win that game to get into the [NCAA] tournament.”
That was a big deal for a program that hadn’t managed it in nearly a decade. This year, sitting third in the PairWise rankings that essentially determine the 16-team field, Harvard didn’t have to run the table in Lake Placid. Its body of work from October to March was more than sufficient.
Along the way, besides the trophies, were several statement victories. The first sweep at St. Lawrence and Clarkson since 2002. The first home decision over BC in a decade. The first regular-season triumph at Yale since 2005.
There also was a January pratfall with losses at Rensselaer, Union, and Dartmouth within five days.
“We dropped some games we just didn’t show up for,” said Malone. “When you’re playing really well and everyone knows that you’re playing well, you’re going to get that team’s best game every night.”
The Crimson haven’t lost since.
“Once we started checking off a couple of things that hadn’t been done in years, it gave us a lot of confidence moving forward that this is a special year for Harvard,” said Tringale, “and that we can definitely go a long way.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.