Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vesey and Co. Return to South Bend

Crimson Trio Criscuolo, Vesey and Kerfoot, "All for One" (Michael Ledecky, Harvard Crimson)

Harvard’s intrepid hockey journalist Mike Ledecky snapped this singular moment in time, March 21, 2015, from the Olympic sheet in Lake Placid. Harvard hockey’s greatest troika since the famed “Commuter Line” of the 1970’s is portrayed basking in pure tournament glory, as Kyle Criscuolo, Jimmy Vesey and Alexander Kerfoot huddle around the coveted Whitelaw trophy as newly crowned ECAC Hockey champions. Having just slayed the dragon represented by the Yale Bulldogs six days prior, this trio gleams with possibility. If they continue their magical ride, two more wins would bring them back to Boston Garden and a neighborhood Frozen Four. The next week, however, brought heartbreak instead.

Crippled by a brutal opening period, The Crimson were felled in the NCAA’s opening round by Omaha and their white-hot goalie Ryan Massa out in South Bend, Indiana, crushing the heady dreams of these three sportsmen in single elimination. A new season has allowed their wounds to heal, and the Crimson are back in the national polls once again as contenders. With Captains Vesey and Criscuolo flanking speedy centerman Alex Kerfoot yet again, this top unit is tearing up Division I competition at an eye-popping four points per game clip. With irony lost on no one, the schedule makers have given the Crimson a painful reminder--a trip back to Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, the venue of last season’s NCAA burial.

Moments after shutting out Princeton last week, two-year captain Criscuolo spoke about his club’s return to the scene of the crime. “We have some unfinished business out there. We’re definitely looking forward to getting back to South Bend.” Eight months ago they were on an NCAA private jet soaring directly into South Bend. Maybe the thin air of playing on the national hockey stage caused them to stumble out of the gate. “It was a new experience for us as a team,” said Kerfoot before practice last week. “We were a young group and even if guys don’t admit that they were nervous, we definitely came out and started like that.” It was a nightmarish opening stanza for the Crimson in their first NCAA hockey match since 2006. Omaha scored in the opening two minutes, and then in the final two seconds to put Harvard in a hole from which they could not escape. “We didn’t have a good start in that game and I think that ultimately cost us the game and cost us our season,” said Vesey. “We thought that we had a team that very easily could have been in the Frozen Four.” Vesey and company staged a furious onslaught in the third period, tilting the ice against the Mavericks with a 19-6 shot advantage. Vesey solved Massa early to cut the lead to 2-1, but that was as close as they got, before Omaha hammered two empty-net nails into the Crimson coffin to close out their season 4-1. Massa and his Mavericks went on the Frozen Four, while Harvard’s magic ride came to a crashing halt, resulting in red-rimmed eyes and choked up sound bites from the bowels of Compton Arena.

“Everyone in the locker room was very emotional after that game, I think especially, for the seniors,” said Kerfoot. “Knowing they would never put on the Harvard jersey again, when it finally hits you that they’re not going to be with you any more, and that’s our last game as a team, it’s kind of tough to handle.” Vesey, who was dragged out of the morgue-like room to face the national media mere minutes after the final horn, epitomized the teary pathos from that dark night in South Bend. But he and his mates have gained from that trial. “It was definitely emotional, but playing in those big games has made us more ready for this year to make a run. I think we’re a stronger team because of that experience.”

Vesey chose to forego a lucrative professional contract to stay in Cambridge for his senior year, earning a ‘C’ on his shoulder to join linemate Criscuolo as one of Harvard’s two designated leaders. Vesey’s sense of obligation to his club includes the pressure to generate scoring early and often. “We’re the first line, and we’re looked at to carry the offensive load, and I think we embrace that. Coach plays us in all the big situations. We start most games and most periods, and I think that if we go out and have a really good momentum shift, then it rubs off on the rest of the team.” The trio has amassed 10 goals and 24 points already, whether they are wearing capes or hard hats.

The night after suffering their first loss to powerhouse Quinnipiac last week, Vesey and company found themselves facing another brilliant goalie in Princeton’s Colton Phinney. This time brought their lunch pails to work, as Vesey solved Phinney barely five minutes into the game, and his trio wore down the Tigers with their relentless cycling. “I think we stopped trying to make too many plays in the neutral zone and just got it down low and started to play the way we were playing last year,” said Criscuolo after the game. He emphasized how they needed to “Play below the circles because ECAC hockey you got to play down low.” Coach Ted Donato acknowledged the efforts of his top unit in their surgical 3-0 win at Hobey Baker Rink last Saturday. “I thought our first line really led the charge for us, setting the tone. I think that as skilled as those guys are, they find their success when they use that skill with their work ethic.”

With a weekend off and sitting on a 4-1-1 record, Harvard now returns to South Bend, the scene of all that sports pathos eight months ago. Criscuolo’s talk of unfinished business resonates. “Obviously that’s where our season ended last year,” said Vesey. “We were left with a bitter taste in our mouth the last time we played there, so we definitely want to have a better showing.” “It will be some emotions going back there,” said Kerfoot, “but we’re not playing against Omaha, we’re playing against Notre Dame, it will be different, but it will be fun.”

For Vesey, this trip represents more than just unfinished business; he sees it as a building block for Harvard’s new title aspirations. “We’re in three tournaments this year: next weekend at Notre Dame, then we play New Year’s at Minnesota, and then obviously the Beanpot, and we want to win as many of those as we can. We think that playing in those tournaments is going to get us ready for the stretch run in the spring.” The Crimson will have their NCAA tourney game face strapped on for this early Holiday tourney, as the country’s best line looks to strike Notre Dame early and often. The Irish might not know what hit them.

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