The Harvard men’s hockey team began the 2003-2004 season, or pre-season I suppose, at the top of both the Coaches’ and the Writers’ ECAC polls. Harvard players cluttered the pre-season All-Conference teams, and the Crimson was picked at No. 6 in the USCHO.com national poll.
Disappointment has followed in the wake of those great expectations. The team that finished second in the ECAC last year—losing to Cornell in overtime—the same team that has now made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, struggled against its preseason billing. Harvard finished No. 6 in the ECAC and was a model of inconsistency, but then went on a tear through playoff opponents en route to an ECAC title and that third straight NCAA auto-bid.
“There were points during the year where we had some pretty tough losses,” said captain Kenny Smith. “But all the time the guys were saying: ‘We’re going to make a run, just wait and see.’”
“We won a league championship that I don’t think anyone outside our locker room expected us to win,” he added.
But on the night of Friday, March 26, Harvard’s hot streak was halted, and the Crimson was shown the door of the NCAA Tournament by No. 1 Maine. After staking Harvard to an early lead, the Black Bears mounted a furious third period comeback, overcoming a 4-1 deficit and stunning the Crimson with a 5-4 win.
“I thought we executed our game plan to a ‘T’ for two periods,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “I’ve got to give [Maine] credit with the way they came at us in the third and the way they finished the job.”
“[Maine] has some individual players that can turn the tide of a game and I think they had some guys step up and make some big plays for them,” Mazzoleni added.
“Maine was the most difficult team we’ve played all year in terms of shutting them down defensively,” agreed Smith. “I thought we played hard the whole game…we battled hard, but they kept coming and coming.”
Maine ended Harvard’s season for the second time in three years, but Mazzoleni and Smith were able to take some positives out of the emotional loss.
“It’s a very tough way to end your season,” Mazzoleni said. “You look at the great programs over the years—you just don’t get to center stage unless you go through experiences.”
“And this is a very, very difficult experience to handle,” he added.
“It’s been a very, very challenging year, but it was very gratifying to see our team rise the way they did and play the way they did.”
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCKIN’
Reporters love juicy quotes, and so it was that a frustrated Mazzoleni (after a win over a nationally-ranked out-of-conference opponent, go figure) issued his roughly mid-season assessment of the team.
“We haven’t gotten to where we should be this year,” Mazzoleni said after Harvard’s 5-3 win over UMass at Bright.