EA Sports: M. Hockey Proves It Belongs in NCAAs

Michael W. Nitsch

Sophomore DAVE McCULLOCH (21) applies a hit on Maine sophomore TODD JACKSON in last week’s NCAA first-round contest.

WORCESTER, Mass.—When Maine’s John Ronan beat freshman goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris two minutes into overtime, he cut the Crimson’s season short.

Not short in terms of the sheer number of games Harvard played, but in terms of the games it played at its best. In that sense, the Crimson’s season didn’t really begin until the start of the postseason.

By the end of last week’s game against Maine, you’d have been hard pressed to recognize the Harvard team of a month ago, the one who finished the regular season with a 2-8-1 mark. Harvard finally found consistency and a team identity during its “second season.” The Crimson skated as an entire unit, not as a ad-hoc combination of lines, each with different playing styles.

One should not underestimate how difficult it is for an inexperienced or underachieving team to just “turn it on” come playoff time. For some perspective Harvard’s run is roughly equivalent to Missouri’s Elite Eight appearance in men’s basketball this year as a No. 12 seed after being ranked second in the country in December. Before that, you have to go back to 2000, when an immensely talented but underachieving North Carolina men’s basketball team reached the final four as a No. 8 seed.

That’s about how often it happens in a college sport, maybe once every few years. All the other talented teams that don’t meet regular season expectations bow out unceremoniously in the playoffs.

Harvard’s valiant performance in its losing effort against Maine in some ways is a fitting close to a season which had to end eventually. For the first time during its late-season run, the Crimson faced a team that even without its leading goal scorer was clearly more talented and more experienced. Also, Harvard had already accomplished all of its preseason goals. Fans were happy the team got this far. But if the players were to be satisfied with just making the tournament, Maine would have blown Harvard off the ice.

That’s what made last week’s overtime defeat about as gratifying as a loss could be. Harvard skated right with Maine for much of the game, particularly during five-on-five situations. There was no “we’re just happy to be here” mentality among the Crimson skaters, who played at the same general level as they had for this new five-game season. In the end, the Black Bears were a better team overall, but they won by the slimmest of margins—a perfect shot in overtime.

“This team deserved to be here,” Harvard captain Peter Capouch said. “We believed we could beat Maine, and that’s what we came here to do.”

Harvard’s amazing postseason run has repercussions far beyond this season. Since 1994 critics have called the Crimson underachievers, a team long on talent but always short on results. With a whopping eight NHL draft picks on this year’s roster—more than any ECAC school, more even than Maine this year—it looked like yet another unfulfilled season.

This year’s amazing postseason run means that, finally, Harvard’s talent has paid off. Although Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni is quick to say that this program has not yet turned the corner back to a national powerhouse, the team certainly has reached some sort of milestone. This year Harvard was described in terms of potential. Now it will be talked about in terms of past performance.

It’s certainly an accomplishment the team should be proud of. Yet as tough as regrouping and reaching the NCAA tournament was for the Crimson, next year’s task might be even harder. One successful five-game run is fine. Next year’s season, however, is the full 29 games, and fans will expect the postseason Harvard team to show up in each of them.

“You can say expectations have changed,” Mazzoleni said before the Maine game. “And we’re ready for that.”

Harvard was highly-regarded going into this season based on potential. With its postseason performance, the Crimson will be highly ranked in next years’ preseason polls based on past performance. If the team receives a No. 8 preseason ranking again next year, it would actually deserve it.