On Hockey: Crimson Can Sink No Lower

BOSTON—The ‘thud’ you heard from across the river around 10:30 last night was the sound of a team, and a season, hitting rock-bottom.

The Harvard men’s hockey team lost to No. 2 Boston College in the Beanpot semifinals, 4-1, in a showcase of everything that has gone wrong with a once-promising season. And, before 15,753 witnesses at the FleetCenter, the Crimson’s habitual mistakes were laid bare for all of Boston to see.

The offense was sporadic, the breakout choppy, and the goaltending suspect. There was a mélange of missed opportunities, defensive missteps and boneheaded penalties. Hanging over it all was the malaise of uncertain, ineffective play.

In a way, we should’ve seen this coming. Harvard has been woefully inconsistent this season, and had a relatively strong showing at nationally-ranked Brown on Saturday. According to their established pattern, our guys were due for a bad game. And they delivered.

To be fair, the Crimson did fall behind, 2-0, on two plays that give new meaning to the term “fluky goals,” but, once again, Harvard proved to be its own worst enemy.

“Especially in the first period, we played extremely tentatively,” said Crimson coach Mark Mazzoleni. “Against a team like that, that’s what’s going to happen.”

How sluggish was the start? Harvard didn’t put its 10th shot on goal until the third period.

An exhaustive search for a reason to come out so flat turned up empty. The Crimson was playing in the Cadillac of college hockey tournaments, in an NHL building, in front of a packed house, against a cross-town rival, in a game that could have given it real hope for what is left of a disappointing season.

How many ways could you say that this was a money game? And how many ways could you say Harvard failed to cash in?

“We didn’t get the job done,” Mazzoleni said.

Bad Theatre

The Crimson’s first period came as a collaborative effort of two scripts: the Keystone Cops On Ice and the part of The Mighty Ducks when the team was just called “District Five” and Goldberg was afraid of the puck.

The good news about the game’s first goal was that Harvard junior Tom Cavanagh scored it. The bad news was that he scored it on Dov Grumet-Morris, not Matti Kaltiainen.

Strange but true. BC forward Patrick Eaves went behind the Crimson net and centered the puck in front … right to Cavanagh, whose stick was inexplicably moving toward the goal line.

Cavanagh knocked it past Grumet-Morris, then knocked his glove against his head in coulda-hada-V8 disbelief. Everyone in the building was baffled. The crowd laughed at the replay. Grumet-Morris smiled and shook his head.

“We didn’t start off too well,” Mazzoleni said lightly.

But there was no shaking this off. The goal was a tone-setter, and the evening didn’t get better.

Later in the period, Ned Havern ripped a shot wide of the net that caromed off the boards, up into the air, and right into the crease. Unknowingly, Grumet-Morris retreated. Bad idea. He swept the puck into the net with his left leg. How’s that for the eventual game-winner?

In case you’re scoring at home, that’s BC 2, Harvard 0, with both goals knocked in by Crimson players.

Assistant captain Rob Fried called the goals “two unlucky bounces.” And they were unlucky—but deservedly so. When in the first period you play a step slow all over the ice, put only four shots on goal, and produce zero scoring chances, then begin to play hockey late in the second, as Harvard did, you set yourself up for unlucky bounces.

The Eagles’ third goal was a softie that sent Grumet-Morris to the pine, making their fourth—a pretty 2-on-1 backhander from Tony Voce in the closing minutes—BC’s only clean goal. Funny, that was the same number of legit goals the Crimson had.

So, this coulda been a tie game—emphasis on the coulda. Instead, Harvard self-destructed in a big game against a quality opponent. Such things have happened before.

“It wasn’t a good start for us, but that’s no excuse,” Mazzoleni said. “I wasn’t real pleased with the way we responded to the adversity. I thought we played tentatively.”

What Now?

To a man, the Crimson’s on-ice leaders were optimistic after the loss.

Captain Kenny Smith said he and his teammates “still have a lot to play for in the league.” He promised the team will “keep fighting, go on a run, and go into playoffs with our heads high.”

Fried said the team knows that, “from now on, at the opening faceoff, we have to be ready to go.” The losses, he said, “have been exposing little fissures in our game that we’ve been correcting.”

Time will tell if Smith and Fried are (a) simply well-trained in the ways of political rhetoric or (b) forecasters of an encore performance of Harvard’s rise-from-the-ruins march to the 2002 ECAC title.

This much is certain: this season will go nowhere without a shake-up, and—thanks to the beauty of college sports—that shake-up has to come from someone in house. This is not the NHL. Mazzoleni cannot call Bob Scalise and say, “I need some scoring. Let’s get Jagr.”

Who knows what the answer is. Maybe Mazzoleni needs to change his approach to get more out of his players. Maybe his players need to start doing what he tells them to do. Maybe both those things need to happen.

One way or another, something has to change, and fast, because right now the on-ice product indicates that somewhere the transmission between coaches and players is broken. There’s simply no other way to explain an 8-11-2 record when the Crimson has 12 NHL draft picks and, with essentially three exceptions, the same roster that won 22 games last year.

Here’s the good news: it can’t get much worse. This team has officially gone from favorite to underdog. The losses have been so numerous that the expectations are now few. As strange as it seems, this back-to-back NCAA tournament qualifier has, almost overnight, turned into a fixer-upper.

The confidence, that wonderfully appropriate Harvard swagger, built during Mazzoleni’s first four years, seems gone now. Last night was a clear indication of that. This team looks a lot like it did two and three years ago. From now on, egos must be checked at the door. Let the re-rebuilding begin.

—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at morosi@fas.harvard.edu.

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