UMD faces seasoned Harvard squad at Frozen Four

It’s been nearly three decades since Ted Donato had his shining moment as a college hockey player, leading Harvard to the Beanpot title and the school’s lone national championship.

If the moment at hand seems a bit like deja vu to him, it should.

Now in his 13th season as head coach of the Crimson, Donato has guided the team to the Beanpot crown (its first since 1993), the ECAC championship and a spot in the Frozen Four after victories over Providence (its first NCAA Tournament victory since 1994) and Air Force in the East Regional.

Oh, and there’s a sophomore named Donato in the Harvard lineup — son Ryan, who’s tied for the team lead in goals (21) with Tyler Moy.

“I’m very proud and very excited for our players,” said Donato, MVP of the 1989 Frozen Four. “It’s very difficult to get here. These guys have answered every challenge thus far.”

Harvard (28-5-2) kicks off the Frozen Four against Minnesota-Duluth (27-6-7) on Thursday night at the United Center in Chicago. The nightcap pits top-seeded Denver (31-7-4) against Notre Dame (23-11-5). The winners play for the title on Saturday night.

Led by a core group of seniors, the Crimson is unbeaten in 18 games since mid-January and averaging 4.14 goals a game, tops in the nation.

“They’re on a pretty good winning streak right now,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to beat them.”

Playing in the national spotlight is one hurdle the players always have to cope with. It shouldn’t be much of an issue for Harvard. The Beanpot is one of the signature college hockey tournaments in the country, and it’s played every February on the home ice of the NHL’s Boston Bruins.

“Our guys played in front of a sold-out crowd in the Beanpot championship,” Donato said. “That’s an experience that our guys will lean on. I do think it gives us something to use as a reference point. Obviously, it’s a whole new situation, but I do think that it’s helpful to the overall team psyche.”

New for the Crimson, old hat for the Pioneers. A year ago, Denver lost in the national semifinals to eventual champion North Dakota.

“They’re hungry for that next step, and they’ve been there before,” Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. “I think that’s the biggest difference that I see.”

Denver has been ranked No.1 in the country for much of the season after losing its first two games and is seeking its eighth national championship.

The Pioneers thrive on defense, allowing just 1.8 goals per game, best in the nation. And the lineup is so stacked with talent that Montgomery rested his top four scorers and National Collegiate Hockey Conference player of the year defenseman Will Butcher in the third-place game of the conference tournament. The Pioneers still beat Western Michigan 3-1 to clinch the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

WHY NOT US?

Four of the past six winners have been first-time champions, including Minnesota-Duluth’s title in 2011. Before that, there had not been a breakthrough winner since Maine in 1993. The Fighting Irish have a chance to add to the list and have recent history leaning on their side — two of the four champions since 2013 were No. 4 seeds.

“You’ve got the bright lights and the big buildings and you don’t know how your team is going to respond to that,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, who won two national championships in the 1990s at Lake Superior State. “You just hope that you’ve prepared them for being in that moment.”

THE BIG THREE

Denver, Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth have been at the top of the rankings all season, with the Fighting Irish on the cusp of the top 10.

WHO NEEDS HOME ICE?

Minnesota-Duluth is 6-0-0 in neutral-site games and has seven short-handed goals and five overtime goals. Harvard also is 6-0-0 at neutral sites and 19-0 when leading after two periods, while Denver is 1-1-0 on neutral ice and Notre Dame 3-1-0.

DRAFT PICKS GALORE

Every roster of the 16 teams that made the NCAA Tournament had at least one NHL prospect, including eight first-round draft picks. Among those in the Frozen Four are: Denver C Henrik Borgstrom (Florida Panthers) and D Blake Hillman (Chicago Blackhawks); Harvard D Adam Fox (Calgary Flames) and C Ryan Donato (Boston Bruins); Minnesota-Duluth LW Riley Tufte (Dallas Stars) and D Carson Soucy (Minnesota Wild); and Notre Dame F Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins) and F Jake Evans (Montreal Canadiens).