The last two times a Harvard hockey team has played at the Mariucci Arena in Minnesota it has won the national championship. The women's team captured the crown last year and the men's team stunned the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 1989 for its NCAA title.
The Golden Gophers were less hospitable this time around.
The Harvard men's hockey team dropped a pair of games Dec. 29 and Dec. 30 at the Mariucci Classic, losing 5-2 to Minnesota (8-10-2, 4-6-2 WCHA) in front of a sellout crowd of 9, 529, and falling 4-2 to UMass-Amherst (6-9-2, 0-6-1 Hockey East).
Minnesota upset No. 8 Northern Michigan, 6-2 to win its own holiday tournament.
Harvard (6-7-1, 5-3-1 ECAC) started off its game against the Golden Gophers with a flash as freshman center Dominic Moore struck just 19 seconds into the game on an assist by senior winger Matt Macleod to give Harvard a 1-0 lead.
The Crimson, however, could not keep up with its faster opponent and it began to break down defensively. Junior center Erik Westrum tied the game at 4:06 of the first period. Senior winger Dave Sphear gave the Golden Gophers a 2-1 lead on the power play in the waning seconds of the opening frame.
Minnesota added a goal in the second period. Sophomore defenseman Mark Nenovich and junior winger Aaron Miskovich built the Golden Gopher lead to 5-1 in the third period.
"Our game against the Gophers was one of our poorest games to date," Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni said. "We really did not have a commitment to our system. We deviated from it, and they are a good hockey team."
Crimson senior winger Jamin Kerner finished the scoring at 8:45 of the final period off assists from senior defenseman Mark Moore and captain Trevor Allman.
Senior goaltender J.R. Prestifilippo made 30 saves for Harvard while sophomore netminder Adam Hauser turned aside 33 Crimson shots.
On the following night, against the Hockey East cellar dweller Minutemen, ECAC's first-place Crimson continued to struggle to put the puck in the net.
Harvard lost a battle of specialty teams as UMass went 3-for-4 on the power play while Harvard was 2-for-8 with the man advantage.
After a scoreless first period, Minuteman sophomore forward Jedd Crumb lit the lamp at 4:37 of the second on the power play and Kris Wallis expanded the lead to 2-0 at 11:45 of the period.
Dominic Moore, one of the few Crimson players to play well both nights, narrowed the score to 2-1 with 4:15 left in the second, but Harvard would draw no closer.
The penalty kill failed again for the Crimson at 5:44 of the third period when sophomore forward Darcy King slipped the puck past junior goaltender Oliver Jonas for the game-winning goal.
Even though the Crimson managed two power play goals on the game, UMass' power play was by far more effective. Moore's goal came on a great individual effort by the flashy freshman. Also, sophomore winger Jeff Stonehouse, who bagged Harvard's other goal with 47 seconds left in the game, came on a six-on-four advantage as Mazzoleni pulled Jonas.
"We played a game where we outchanced UMass," Mazzoleni said. "But we had big breakdowns and they capitalized on their odd-man rushes. They were much better on specialty teams."
The two losses on the weekend drop the Crimson to 1-4 outside the ECAC, and Harvard still clings to a one point lead on the rest of its conference foes, having played at least one more game than the rest of the ECAC lineup.
Harvard will defend its precarious first place status tonight against Yale (11-5-0, 4-2-2) and then takes on Princeton tomorrow (5-6-3, 3-2-3) at Bright Hockey Center.
After the holiday debacle, Mazzoleni has placed extra attention on the team's neutral zone play and on finishing its chances in practice this week.
"We placed a lot of focus on what we are doing in the neutral zone," Mazzoleni said. "We have tried to simulate game conditions, putting guys in pressure situations. If you don't work on the plays in practice, they aren't going to go in during the games."
The Crimson was expected to get back freshman winger Brett Nowak this weekend. Nowak was the team's leading scorer before departing in mid December to play in the World Junior Championships for Team USA in Sweden.
Nowak just arrived back home Wednesday and Mazzoleni wants to give him some rest after the greuling tournament in which the U.S. lost to Canada in the bronze medal game.
Nowak, however, should be a stronger player for his time in Sweden.
"The experience is going to help him," Mazzoleni said. "He played against the best 18-20 year olds in the world. Sweden featured the Sedin twins, who were both first round NHL draft picks."
The Crimson will feature new line combinations that Mazzoleni played with in Minnesota. He has moved junior Steve Moore from center onto the wing alongside his brother Dominic. Moore has been the team's top sniper the past two seasons, but has only four goals on the year.
Steve Moore replaces junior winger Chris Bala, another top scorer who has struggled. Bala will play next to sophomore Jared Cantanucci. The diminutive Cantanucci, at 5'9, has earned his lineup spot with his hustle.
Macleod may be out of the starting lineup for Harvard this weekend as he suffered an injury in practice on Tuesday. If he cannot play Kerner will take his spot.
"We are just trying to put people in a spot to get more production," Mazzoleni said. "Hopefully the shift to the wing will make it easier for [Steve] Moore."
However, the Crimson will be trying to jumpstart its offense against two of the best defensive teams in the league.
The Bulldogs have managed to stay in second place in the conference on the strength of its defense and goaltending. Yale boasts the No. 2 and No. 3 netminders in the conference in senior Trevor Hanger and sophomore Dan Lombard.
Hanger has a miniscule 1.65 goals against average, while Lombard is right behind him at 1.82. The tandem splits the starting duties equally.
Yale Coach Tim Taylor '63 has once again gotten his team to overachieve. The Elis have managed to stay competitive despite the loss of captain and All-American center Jeff Hamilton.
Hamilton has taken a medical/academic hardship exemption and is sitting out the season after suffering a torn abdominal muscle in November.
Princeton, on the other hand, has also exceeded expectations this season after graduating arguably the best senior class in its history led by center Jeff Halpern, who has five goals so far this year for the Washington Capitals.
A pair of junior forwards Chris Corrinet and Kirk Lamb along with senior forward Benoit Morin have picked up the scoring slack for the Tigers. Meanwhile, sophomore goalie Dave Stathos has been rock solid in goal, posting a 2.63 GAA.
"We have the utmost respect for Yale and Princeton," Mazzoleni said. "These are two excellent defensive teams. We have been trying up to this point to still implement out system."
As for the Harvard defense, Mazzoleni continues to experiment with pairings and he will start Prestifilippo Friday night. Saturday's starter has yet to be determined as Jonas turned in a solid 26-save performance against the Minutemen.
Before the season began, Mazzoleni said to reserve judgement on the team until after Christmas. That time is now upon the Crimson as it begins the second half of its schedule.
Although it finished the first stretch in first place, the second half stretch is much tougher with only one potential "gimmie" game, a March 3 home match against a resurgent Union.
Harvard has to get its offense and power play on track if it's to remain at the top of the ECAC. It also doesn't hurt to beat Yale.