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PREVIEW: No. 16 Men's Hockey Duels No. 13 Northeastern in Beanpot Semifinal

In Monday's 5:00 p.m. game, the Crimson and the Huskies kick off the 68th Beanpot tournament, which promises to showcase high-end skill and competitive parity among Boston's hockey elite

{shortcode-f311560cabe5c2652ea0f93bb04f3a1840b539f7}On Monday morning, sports viewers across America will return to work reluctantly following a long evening of Super Bowl festivities. Boston hockey fans, though, will wake up with a special excitement.

That’s because that night, Beantown’s four most storied hockey schools will commence their annual battle for on-ice supremacy: the Beanpot Tournament.

A pair of semifinal matchups — first featuring the Harvard men’s hockey team and Northeastern before turning to a Commonwealth clash between Boston University and Boston College — will kick off the 68th rendition of the famed competition.

“[The Beanpot] is always a highlight,” said Crimson junior forward Henry Bowlby. “The tradition is always there. I’m not even from Boston, but it’s always still a big deal…. We take it very seriously as something that could really turn our season around and give us momentum as we head into the back half.”

The early game of the first round features the last two programs to claim the sought-after trophy. The No. 16 Crimson (9-6-4, 7-4-3 ECAC), last victors in 2017, come up against the No. 13 Huskies (13-7-2, 7-6-1 HEA), who begin their quest to secure the university’s first-ever streak of three consecutive tournament wins.

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Prior to these squads’ recent triumphs, the Boston hockey classic was lacking parity, as the other two Beanpot foes had accounted for 23 straight crowns. Now, with each school able to point to a championship in the past five years, Monday’s 5:00 p.m. affair initiates a tournament that is truly up for grabs.

Sure, the No. 5 Eagles (15-7-0, 9-5-0 HEA) will enter as the favorites, given that they sit highest of the four teams on the national big board. But with two other ranked clubs in the field, plus a Terriers (9-8-6, 6-4-5 HEA) squad that will bring its share of high-end talent to TD Garden, the 2020 Beanpot could deliver any possible result.

Harvard and Northeastern should provide an entertaining and competitive opener in their first meeting since the Crimson’s semifinal victory in 2017.

“There’s no question that BC brings the most experience into [the tournament],” said Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91, himself a veteran of the Beanpot. “There’s a case to be made that Northeastern brings the most confidence into it after winning two in a row, and BU has the best performance all-time in the Beanpot, so I think that every team feels that if they play their best hockey, they can get the result they want. And that makes for an exciting tournament.”

Both teams will face conference opponents on Friday — Harvard visits Union and the Huskies host Providence — before shifting focus entirely to Monday’s bout. The outcomes of these weekend primers will certainly influence the momentum that each foe brings to the semifinal. But more generally, the TD Garden clash affords a chance for the victor to reestablish winning ways, after both adversaries have logged mixed results since the new year.

Since rattling off six consecutive wins to open the campaign, the Crimson has posted a lackluster 3-6-4 record. In mid-January, Harvard enjoyed a 7-0 thrashing of rival Yale at Madison Square Garden and was able to follow up its convincing performance with another triumph against St. Lawrence.

The winning stopped there, though, as the following night, top-10 opponent Clarkson halted the Crimson’s comeback attempt in the third period and returned coach Donato’s squad to the loss column. The team’s most recent trip, to Upstate New York, delivered ties at Colgate and No. 1 Cornell, each disappointing in its own way.

{shortcode-ecfad32837fff01fce6f91af36912960a335aa82}Nineteen games into the campaign, Harvard has just two victories over schools currently in the top 20. So, Northeastern represents a marquee opponent against which a win could do wonders for the season trajectory and the Pairwise rankings as the back half of the schedule progresses.

“Monday will be a really big test because Northeastern has those really big wins,” said Crimson freshman defenseman Henry Thrun. “Hopefully, the next Monday we’ll get a good championship matchup, and then we’re going to have Clarkson again later in the season. So we’ll have some big games that will hopefully be able to let us jump a little in the Pairwise.”

The Huskies have several statement wins on their resume entering Monday’s matchup, such as those over Massachusetts and Providence, squads currently ranked No. 7/6 and No. 9/8 in the country, respectively.

In fairness, these victories have come in the form of series splits, in which the formidable foes have also claimed two points against Northeastern at least once. Nonetheless, the Huskies have proven their ability to take down some of the stiffest competition in the nation — a capacity which Harvard is still looking to demonstrate to the rest of college hockey.

Resuming the campaign after the new year, Northeastern handled Connecticut and Bentley to continue the success it had established prior to Christmas, having taken a 6-1 stretch of hockey into the holiday break.

Mid-January, however, provided consecutive setbacks, as UConn and New Hampshire avenged previous defeats with overtime victories.

So just like the Crimson, the Huskies will confront a turning-point opportunity on Monday evening to capture a high-quality win and set their season on a successful course for its final five weeks. And both teams have reason to think that the semifinal game is theirs for the taking. In fact, the schools match up relatively closely.

For one, they can score. Prior to each squad’s conference tilt on Friday, Harvard ranks fifth nationwide in goals per game (3.68), while Northeastern follows just seven spots behind (3.27). On the other side of the ice, the Crimson and its Monday-night opponent sit in the top half of NCAA teams in goals against per game, at 27th (2.63) and 19th (2.50), respectively.

These similar numbers result in the teams being just two spots apart in per-game goal margin, with Harvard at 11th (+1.05) and the Huskies at 13th (+0.77).

“We know they bring a lot of speed and a lot of offense,” Crimson captain Nathan Krusko said. “We have to do a lot of diligence to see what their strengths are and find ways to mitigate that.”

Arguably the most intriguing strategical matchup in Monday’s Beanpot opener will occur on special teams. After pacing the nation in powerplay effectiveness for almost the entirety of 2018-2019, Harvard is once again looking down at the other 59 Division-I teams in this department, posting a 28.6 percent clip.

This carryover in potency with the man advantage comes despite the key losses of defenseman Adam Fox, the quarterback of last year’s unit, and assistant coach Rob Rassey, the architect of the system.

“We try to take advantage of the talents and offensive abilities they have,” said coach Donato of his man-up personnel. “A good powerplay has a good percentage, and a great powerplay can score when you really need a goal. Right now, we have a good percentage. We’re still chasing being able to score that key goal at the right moment.”

{shortcode-9a4d43fee8c328d262f9b97993ab08d0ea1c0fb3}Northeastern, however, will bring the league’s fourth-best penalty kill (90.0%) to TD Garden in hopes of containing the Crimson powerplay.

Another area of import heading into Monday is the faceoff dot, where Harvard ranks top-10 in win percentage (53.0%). The Huskies, meanwhile, are in the bottom half of collegiate teams in this respect (49.2%).

Two centers, in particular, contribute to the Crimson’s success in the circles. Junior Jack Badini (4–6—10) is fourth in the country in faceoff percentage (60.9%) among players with at least 100 attempts. Sophomore Jack Drury (11–11—22) also boasts an impressive clip on the dot (57.0%).

When Harvard and Northeastern square off, controlling possession through faceoffs has the potential to give one team the edge.

Badini and Drury are two of many notable icemen participating in Monday’s duel. Both sides bring high-end talent as well as experience to the clash.

For the Crimson, dynamic wingers Casey Dornbach (10–15—25) and Nick Abruzzese (8–15—23) flank Drury on the top forward line, whose members each score over a point per game. Dornbach paces his team in points and sits tied for eighth nationwide in per-game scoring (1.32). Abruzzese (1.21) leads all NCAA freshmen in the category.

Another valuable piece up front for Harvard is Krusko (2–2—4). The sole letter-wearer in 2019-2020, he brings Beanpot experience to a locker room predominated by underclassmen. Krusko’s three-point contribution (2–1—3) in 2017 fueled a 6-3 triumph over BU as the Crimson claimed its first Beanpot title since 1993. The Alpharetta, Ga. native earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors for his performance.

“Coming in as a freshman, obviously coming from Georgia, I didn’t really know too much about it, but with the [Massachusetts] guys in the locker room, it didn’t take me long to realize how special of an opportunity it was,” Krusko said. “[My first Beanpot] kind of was a coming-out party for me…. It was definitely my success in the Beanpot that has given me confidence and really pushed me to get to another level.”

Harvard generates substantial offense from its blue line as well. Key producers include junior Reilly Walsh (5–11—16) and sophomore Jack Rathbone (4–12—16), the latter of whom has missed three straight contests after sustaining an upper-body injury in mid-January.

Were Rathbone, who ranks fourth among defensemen in per-game scoring this season (1.00), to return to the lineup on Monday, an already dangerous Crimson roster would regain an integral component.

“We’re not sure just yet, but I think that’s moving in a positive direction,” said coach Donato of Rathbone’s injury status. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

As somewhat of a silver lining, the brief absence of the Vancouver Canucks prospect has elevated the roles of other rearguards, providing a bit of extra experience to a young back end. In particular, sophomore Marshall Rifai (0–2—2) has slotted into the top four, and Thrun has continued to enjoy a hefty serving of minutes for a rookie defenseman.

“I thought I’ve been progressing well,” Thrun said. “Learning to manage the game is probably the thing that I’ve learned the most — just being able to play a lot of minutes, kind of learning where to jump up and how to apply myself…. Individually, I’m playing a little more than I thought [going into the season], which obviously is a good thing.”

{shortcode-9f105aabcd6e849d67c060912e2e6f22411125f1}Harvard’s semifinal adversary will bring just as much skill to TD Garden on Monday. Sophomore forward Tyler Madden (16–15—31) commands the most attention, having centered the Huskies’ formidable top line for the better part of his collegiate career. The Deerfield Beach, Fla. product was the overtime hero in last season’s Beanpot semifinal defeat of BU.

Madden narrowly edges Drury, his former United States teammate in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, for the lead among all Beanpot skaters in per-game scoring (1.41 to Drury’s 1.38).

“[Madden] is very skilled — fast player, dynamic in the O-zone, and makes stuff happen when the puck is on his stick,” Bowlby lauded. “It’ll definitely be interesting playing against him and trying to contain him and his skill.”

Madden and Freshman Aidan McDonough (8–11—19), both Canucks draft choices along with Rathbone, form a threatening duo on Northeastern’s top forward unit. On the Huskies’ second line, the story is quite similar: senior Matt Filipe (6–11—17) and junior Zach Solow (9–14—23) present another one-two punch up front.

On the blue line, coach Jim Madigan’s group is as young as the Crimson’s. Captain Ryan Shea (3–19—22) commands the top six as the only upperclassman and is tied with Rathbone for fourth in the country in per-game scoring among defensemen (1.00).

Sophomore Jordan Harris (3–12—15) and four freshmen fill out the Huskies’ top six. Harris skates with fellow Montréal Canadiens prospect Jayden Struble (3–6—9), and together the two underclassmen form a reliable top-four pairing.

In net, graduate transfer Craig Pantano (13-7-2, 2.39 GAA, .915 SV%) should get the nod for Northeastern on Monday. The former Merrimack net-minder has tended the crease for 97.9 percent of the Huskies’ minutes this season, filling a void created by the National Hockey League departure of Cayden Primeau, the Most Valuable Player in last year’s Beanpot.

For Harvard, the situation between the pipes is somewhat murkier. Freshman Mitchell Gibson (6-4-2, 2.31 GAA, .929 SV%) has fielded pucks for roughly two-thirds of the Crimson’s available minutes in 2019-2020.

Gibson has shown prolonged spells characteristic of a stout number-one goaltender, but senior Cameron Gornet (3-2-2, 2.78 GAA, .913 SV%), a competent backstop in his own right, has earned starts from coach Donato for several games at a time.

“To me, it’s on a night-to-night basis,” said coach Donato of his starting goaltender decisions. “Both guys have had some moments of brilliance, and much like the rest of our team, we’re still chasing a level of consistency. The good part is, I think we have confidence that on any given night, we have two guys that can give us the best chance to win.”

These impact players and others will collide on Monday evening as Harvard and Northeastern both seek a spot in the following week’s tournament final.

The Huskies have not lost a Beanpot game since bowing to the Crimson in the 2017 semifinal and are aiming to continue their recent dominance. Harvard, on the other hand, is hoping to reverse its recent fortunes, having failed to reach the title game in the last two seasons.

“Our seniors have only been to the championship once,” Thrun said. “There’s an urge to get back there and definitely make a name for ourselves in terms of hockey schools in Boston.”

The stage is set for a Beanpot that should deliver on all the usual allures: some of Division I’s most storied programs vying for local supremacy in a time-honored Boston sports tradition. In the tournament opener, Harvard and Northeastern promise to set a lasting tone of fierce and exciting competition.

—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at spencer.morris@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.

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