Here’s picking Harvard to win some hardware, and other ECAC Hockey second-half thoughts

Harvard’s Seb Lloyd (far left) scores his first collegiate goal in Tuesday’s win over Rensselaer (photo: Melissa Wade).

For those of you who peruse the other conference columns, you may notice a trend this week. Like a living, working, many-headed and sarcastic Ouija board, the USCHO correspondents are making second-half insider predictions, guesses, and random shots-in-the-dark regarding how each of their respective leagues are going to shake out.

Here are mine; where they fall on the spectrum between “insider predictions” and “random shots in the dark” is debatable.

Mark your calendars

The standings are pretty tight right now from first place all the way down to 10th, but here are a couple upcoming games and three weekends that loom large for the teams involved.

Jan. 9-10: Colgate at Clarkson and St. Lawrence

The Raiders aren’t having the blow-’em-away kind of year that many foresaw in September, but Colgate’s 3-2-1 league record through six games places it alone in fourth in terms of win percentage, and that’s not a bad place to be through the first quarter of the conference schedule. The North Country teams are a combined 8-4-2, each hovering around the top four spots, but sum a sub-.500 4-7-2 home record overall. These will be tough points to drop for all involved.

Jan. 23-24: Yale at St. Lawrence and Clarkson

Much like Colgate, Yale is definitely in the mix for a top-four finish and its accompanying first-round bye. The Bulldogs are fourth in the standings by points (4-3-1 through eight games), but they are only mediocre in terms of team scoring and defense thus far. SLU likely will challenge Yale’s defense and goaltending with a dynamic up-tempo offense, while Clarkson has been a tough nut to crack all season long. These are likely to be two very entertaining yet very different contests.

Saturday, Jan. 31: St. Lawrence at Clarkson

Offense versus defense? Battle for a bye berth? Forget all of that, it’s the rubber match of these neighbors’ four-game season series. Each squad has one win and a tie against the other, and the fact that this decisive tilt goes down with just a month to play in the regular season only raises the stakes higher still.

Friday, Feb. 27: Quinnipiac at Harvard

ECAC Hockey’s top two teams at the break don’t meet again until the penultimate day of the regular season. The Crimson took Game 1 in Hamden by a 5-2 score in early December, and the Bobcats will have to mount a substantially better effort if Harvard keeps playing the way it did in late 2014.

Feb. 27-28: Yale vs. Colgate and Cornell

The final weekend should bear all sorts of juicy and dramatic fruit, but one site that stands out is Ingalls Rink, where Yale will host the Raiders and Big Red. All three teams have demonstrated (at one time or another) the type of elite, cohesive play necessary to make postseason waves, and while it’s tough to sit here on New Year’s Eve and say that New Haven will be The Place to Be in two months’ time, it is as safe a bet as any. The wild card, really, may be Cornell’s ability to dig a few more goals out of its back pockets than it did between October and December.

Riding a Crimson tide

I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Harvard is my team to beat in the consecutive races for the Cleary and Whitelaw Cups.

I’ve been burned by the Crimson before — Lord, how they have practically pilloried this poor prognosticating putz — but in my 15 years as a Boston college hockey fan and nine years as USCHO’s ECAC Hockey columnist, I have never seen Harvard start so genuinely well.

This is not smoke-and-mirrors success: The top line of Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Kerfoot and Kyle Criscuolo has given everyone fits, and together they are only accounting for 42 percent of Harvard’s goals so far. Senior goaltender and Minnesota Wild pick Steve Michalek is playing like a man possessed, stopping 19 of every 20 shots on goal faced this season. The power play is scorching at 30 percent efficiency. The penalty kill is doing its job nine times out of 10. This is a legitimately scary team, and no one else in the league has looked remotely as dangerous.

Dark-horse candidates for the title: Quinnipiac — The Bobcats have played terrific defense and put themselves in excellent position with an 8-2 league record at the break. On the other hand, they have played only four league games against better-than-.500 opponents (2-2 against Colgate, Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Harvard).

Clarkson — The Golden Knights have the best defensive numbers in the league, and no matter how you feel about the “defense wins championships” chestnut, there is no denying that it is much easier to build from the back than the other way around. The Golden Knights are an impressive 2-0-2 against top ECAC competition this year (Yale, Colgate, Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence), but there is no way Clarkson will climb to the top of the pile without substantially improving its offensive production as well.

Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey has 10 goals and 10 assists through 13 games (photo: Melissa Wade).

And the awards will go to …

Player of the year: Jimmy Vesey — Harvard

Vesey is by no means running away with the goal-scoring or point lead, but his competitors — Sam Anas (Quinnipiac) and Daniel Ciampini (Union) — may have more marks against them than Vesey.

The Crimson junior has been a dynamic player since arriving on campus, and has been named to Ivy and/or ECAC Hockey all-league teams in each of his first two seasons. This year, Vesey is scoring three goals for every four games, best in the conference; his 1.42 points per game (overall) trail only linemate Kerfoot’s 1.50.

Admittedly, Vesey ranks fourth in league point production and second in ECAC goals per game, trailing Ciampini in each category. So why do I think Vesey will end up with the hardware? Simply put, I think Harvard will have a significantly better season, and for better or worse, that matters in most of these kinds of votes. Is it right? Not across the board.

But would I vote for Ciampini over Vesey? Not at the moment.

Harvard will win the Beanpot

Do I have your attention yet?

While Boston University has been the highest-ranked team in town this year, Harvard is the top dog in terms of head-to-head competition. The Crimson already knocked off BU and Boston College — both on the road — in the fall portion of the docket, and Northeastern (5-10-1) is not evolving as much of a threat this season.

Granted, the Beanpot is a different animal from any other regular-season game, but the pressure is not distributed unevenly. If anything, BU is in line to carry the heaviest burden of expectations, given its lofty rank and record and — what’s his name? — oh right, that Eichel character.

Harvard takes on BU on the first Monday evening of February. A little early momentum could be practically all it takes to boost Harvard right on through a ‘Pot presentation at the TD Garden the following week.

The super-early, wildly premature NCAA picture

As of this moment, Harvard is the second-ranked team in the nation in the PairWise Rankings. Also as of this moment, the PairWise Rankings are variable to the extent of near-meaninglessness. But hey, it’s a starting point.

Backed up around the critical 15th spot on this ever-changing list are the next four ECAC teams: Yale, Quinnipiac, Colgate and Dartmouth.

ECAC Hockey has never put more than three teams in the 16-team NCAA field, though it has often been left with just two representatives, and once — in 2004 — the conference only had one member (Harvard) in the mix. So let’s hope for three. Who will make it?

Harvard has obviously put itself in a great position with a wicked strong first half, though it can’t just call it a day and wait for the NCAA to call with a bid. A better-than-.500 winter ought to keep the Crimson in the hunt, though.

Yale appears to be playing the most complete, cohesive hockey in the league behind Harvard. The Bulldogs have reinvented themselves of late, playing excellent defense in front of reliable goaltending and seeking offensive opportunities when they present themselves, rather than recent teams’ habits of just trying to out-score opponents and nothing more.

Vermont and Harvard are shaping up as Yale’s last remaining nonconference challenges (the Bulldogs play the Crimson in a nonleague game at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10), meaning the Bulldogs will have to win PWR points by and large through league play.

I have to admit, I like Dartmouth’s chances down the stretch. The Big Green are the most experienced team in the conference, they have two more ECAC home games remaining than road games, and they have a stacked stretch of nonconference heavyweights to play before mid-January (Denver, BC, at New Hampshire and Vermont). We will have a much better picture of Dartmouth’s odds come Jan. 12, but for the sake of predictions, I’ll take a flyer on the Green. That bet comes at the expense of …

… Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are a pleasant surprise for sure, but they are young and inconsistent. True, QU does have a number of moderately impressive victories (Colgate, Cornell, Union, St. Lawrence and Dartmouth), but the Cats have also dropped decisions to the likes of Massachusetts and Connecticut and are piling on wins against Princeton (twice) and Northeastern (twice). I’m not writing Quinnipiac off, but I am definitely skeptical.