Chance to repeat puts Harvard in unfamiliar territory

Harvard celebrates Kyle Criscuolo’s overtime winner against St. Lawrence (photo: John Crouch).

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — For the first time under coach Ted Donato, the Harvard Crimson will defend their ECAC Hockey tournament title in the championship game, advancing with a 2-1 overtime win against St. Lawrence on Friday.

It was a cruel third period for the Crimson, who saw the Saints tie the game on an own-goal when Clay Anderson attempted to clear a puck out of mid-air but ended up swatting it into his own goal. But Kyle Criscuolo played the hero for Harvard, propelling it to its second straight conference championship.

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Criscuolo deflected a Jimmy Vesey shot with what appeared to be his helmet, beating Kyle Hayton with only 2:18 gone in the overtime period. The goal was extensively reviewed but eventually upheld, sending the Crimson back to the championship game.

While Harvard has appeared in the title game while being the defending champions before, it hasn’t happened in 12 seasons under Donato, which puts the Crimson in a pleasant, but somewhat unfamiliar spot.

Donato isn’t worried about the unfamiliar territory for his Crimson squad.

“I think that this group has had their eyes on winning the ECAC championship since day one,” Donato said. “I think it’s a completely new year, too.”

This is the sixth ECAC championship Harvard has made in the last 12 seasons, and this time it comes against the Quinnipiac team it defeated in the semifinals a year ago to advance to the championship game.

The opponent is not as important as the stage for Vesey.

“We set it as our goal at the beginning of the year, to repeat as ECAC champions,” he said. “We set our schedule so that at this point we would be a little battle tested.

“We’re still the defending champions,” Vesey added with a smile.

His coach echoed that sentiment, making a point to emphasize that the team’s goal was always to be back on the league’s biggest stage, regardless of how it got there or who its opponent ultimately was. He also mentioned Vesey point’s about the battle-tested nature of this squad.

“This is a proud group and this is our fourth tournament of the season, and obviously the Beanpot didn’t go our way, but the other two did and obviously we’re still alive in this one,” Donato said.

Harvard captured the Mariucci Classic in overtime and beat fellow ECAC team Rensselaer to capture the Shillelagh Tournament.

However, Quinnipiac is a higher-ranked team then either Minnesota or RPI and also is significantly improved from a year ago.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the country,” said Donato. “They haven’t had a ton of success in this tournament but they’ve dominated over the last few years in the regular season and they’ve earned their way here and we’re excited to play them. They’re a great team.”

Ultimately, Harvard may be in unfamiliar territory, but Quinnipiac will be looking to do what it has never previously done: win the ECAC tournament. For Donato, neither team possesses much of an advantage.

“I don think there’s any advantage other than our guys know it’s gonna be a heck of a battle tomorrow to come out on the winning side,” he said.