After falling to Brown, 4-2, on Nov. 15, the Crimson started winning and never looked back. Harvard blew out ECAC doormats like Colby by scores of 15-0 and squeaked past contenders such as Northeastern in overtime, 7-6. No matter what the final score, the Crimson won 30 games in a row. Along the way, Harvard captured its first Beanpot championship since 1995, its first Ivy League title since 1988-89 and its first ECAC crown ever.
It would be pretty tough to script a more dramatic culmination to a season than the way this one ended at the American Women's College Hockey Association National Championship at the University of Minnesota's Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. In a wild third period, both Harvard and UNH, the defending national champions, scored three goals to force overtime in the title game. That only set the stage for Harvard to demonstrate that it was truly the best team in college women's hockey.
At 8:01 of the extra period, co-captain A.J. Mleczko won the puck in the left corner and raced past UNH's best defenseman, senior Nicki Luongo, along the goal line. Mleczko slid the puck under the diving glove of Wildcat junior goaltender Alicia Roberts, who set a school record with 48 saves. On the receiving end was freshman winger Jen Botterill, who slammed home the championship-winning goal.
"We had been in the zone for a while and our defensemen made a couple great plays to keep the puck in the zone," Mleczko said. "All I remember is coming out in front of the net and seeing Jen's stick and thinking, 'Thank God Bots is there.' As usual, she was in the perfect place at the perfect time."
It was a fitting end to the season--Mleczko, the ECAC Player of the Year, getting her 77th assist of the season on a pass to Botterill, the ECAC Rookie of the Year, who recorded her nation-high eighth game-winning goal of the season.
But those were only a few of the key players in the championship game. Sophomore center Angie Francisco recorded a hat trick. Sophomore winger Tammy Shewchuk, who led the country in goals, also assisted on Botterill's overtime goal. Co-captain Claudia Asano and freshman Angela Ruggiero, a First-Team All-American, were the defensemen who kept the puck in the offensive zone to set up Botterill's goal.
"It was a great game and UNH is a fantastic team," Mleczko said. "But, in retrospect, it would have been a crime had we not won with the talent that we had."
That talent began to gell immediately after the loss at Brown on the first homestand of the season against St. Lawrence and Cornell. ECAC Coach of the Year Katey Stone put Mleczko, Shewchuk and Botterill on the first line "just to see what would happen." The threesome tallied nine goals and 10 assists as a rejuvenated Crimson offense spanked both the hapless Saints and Big Red by the score of 7-2.
Mleczko, Shewchuk and Botterill went on to become the most feared line in the nation, combining for 307 points each making the Ivy, ECAC and All-America First Teams. The Crimson top line appeared to be on a power play for the entire season, keeping the puck in the offensive zone and continuing to generate scoring opportunities.
"I had no idea the three of us could develop into such an offensive line," Mleczko said. "We worked so well together in the offensive zone cycling the puck and passing it around so quickly."
The nation's newest offensive juggernaut traveled to Durham, N.H. on Dec. 6 for its first classic confrontation of the season against UNH. The result was the most defensive-oriented contest of the four meetings between the two best teams in the country. UNH took a 2-1 lead with 7:39 left in the game, but back-to-back goals by Shewchuk and Botterill, coming within 52 seconds of each other, gave Harvard the 3-2 lead and the No. 1 ranking for good.
The biggest scare of the season came Jan. 15 when junior goaltender Crystal Springer broke her collarbone, making her inactive for the next six weeks. Springer, who finished fourth in the nation in both goals-against average (1.61) and save percentage (.924), had anchored the team between the pipes for the early season, but that responsibility fell on the inexperienced shoulders of freshman netminder Alison Kuusisto, who had made just one start in her collegiate career.
Kuusisto gave up six goals in the first 30 minutes of the Beanpot semifinal against host Northeastern but settled down after that to record a 2.11 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. She turned in a perfect 9-0 record during Springer's absence.
Kuusisto's experience proved crucial in the postseason when Springer re-injured her collarbone late in the AWCHA semifinal game, a 5-3, redeeming victory over Brown.
A few defensive lapses allowed UNH to tie the championship game at 5-5 and force overtime with two goals late in the third period, but Kuusisto remained calm under pressure. She covered the puck when she had to and guided the Crimson through a penalty kill in the extra period, keeping the Wildcats at bay until her classmate Botterill came through on the other end of the ice.
Harvard developed a pair of experienced returning goaltenders, but it also had a solid defense in front of them. Ruggiero, who finished sixth in the nation in scoring from the blue line, provided an intimidating presence to opposing snipers. She could also handle the puck well enough to lead rushes down the ice, and the steady forechecking of linemate Courtney Smith allowed the Crimson to take gambles that often paid off. The line of Asano and junior defenseman Christie MacKinnon did the dirty work to keep the puck out of the defensive zone.
With so much production from the top line, the quiet performances of a trio of sophomores seems lost in the mix. But Angie Francisco, Kiirsten Suurkask and Tara Dunn combined for 110 points and provided more than enough offensive depth on the second and third lines.
All that talent will skate into next season riding a 30-game winning streak and the momentum of one of the most dominating teams in college hockey history. Harvard won five games in overtime--including victories over UNH in both the ECAC and AWCHA championship games--and outscored its opponents 218-62. The Crimson will miss the leadership and talent of Mleczko and Asano next season, but there is more than enough experience and ability to give the women's hockey team another shot at being The Crimson Team of the Year.
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