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Welcome back, to the ranks of the Boston elite. Welcome back, to a sold out Bright Hockey Center. Welcome back, to NCAA-caliber play in the finest men's program of all the major sports at this school.
So what if the Harvard men's hockey team lost? Saturday's contest was all about respect. No. 4 Boston College was pushed to the limit and was 42 seconds away from walking out of Bright Hockey Center with a 2-1 stinging defeat to the Crimson.
The Eagles pulled it out in the waning seconds, but Harvard proved itself nearly their equal and the Chestnut Hill boys noticed.
"I thought it was a terrific college hockey game; the venue was outstanding," B.C. Coach Jerry York said. "There is no question in my mind that that was two NCAA-caliber teams out there."
The Eagles and the Crimson renewed their rivalry in grand fashion with an absolutely magnificent hockey game. The score was 1-1 entering the third period after some end-to-end action replete with emotion and all its requisite violence.
Adding to the atmosphere was the vibrancy of the normally abysmal Bright Hockey Center. Local B.C. fans filled the building, but it became apparent after two periods that there were as many fans of college hockey in Boston in general as there were Eagle crazies. Chants of "Lets Go Boston" rung through the arena a couple of times referring the new heights that Harvard was bringing the area's competition, so long dominated by B.C. and Boston University.
When assistant captain Chris Bala converted a pass from sophomore winger Brett Nowak at 10:47 of the third period to give Harvard a stunning 2-1 lead, the crowd roared in appreciation.
Bright Hockey Center, at least for the moment, was Harvard's once again. It was as if the Crimson had turned back the clock to the late 1980s, when the post-Thanksgiving B.C.-Harvard game was a grudge match between two teams certain to head to the NCAA Tournament.
"This was one of the best home games that I've ever played in since I've been here," said senior goaltender Oli Jonas, who added another magnificent performance to his stellar season, making a career-high 44 saves. "I've never seen the building more excited. This is what you play for."
Games like Saturday night's were the reason that Coach Mark Mazzoleni was hired last year. This week was perhaps the first real, hard evidence that his program is working. Harvard edged Boston University, 4-3, at Walter Brown Arena on Tuesday and nearly walked away with pure Boston bragging rights on Saturday.
It became clear on Saturday that while B.C. has by far the more polish and experience, the Crimson has just as much raw talent on the ice. Harvard cannot pass with precision and sling the puck around the ice like B.C. can, but it was also clear that the Crimson can skate with, and certainly outmuscle, the mighty Eagles.
Harvard shutout the B.C. power play, which entered the game tops in Hockey East. When the Eagles had a five-minute man advantage in the second period, Harvard got the better of the scoring chances as its quickness forced two breakaways--by Bala and sophomore center Dominic Moore.
Mazzoleni has not only increased the caliber of player coming to Harvard, but he has also not hidden his team from the best in the country. UMass-Amherst was dropped from the schedule in favor of visiting No. 5 New Hampshire on Dec. 14. For its winter break trip, the Crimson will be playing a deuce at No. 9 Colorado College. At this rate, a trip to No. 1 Michigan State will probably be in the offing for Harvard in the not-too-distant future.
"You don't start running until you walk fast, and you start to trot before you run," Mazzoleni said. "We haven't been in any races yet. Until we're in a few races, we'll take this, learn from it and be a better team the next time out."
The game was by no means a perfect effort for Harvard. The Crimson allowed 47 shots on goal, and the Eagles at times commanded territorial play. The game-tying goal came on a defensive breakdown. B.C. senior Mike Lephart beat a Crimson defenseman off the wall and was able to stand in front of the net unmarked long enough for Ben Eaves to make a great display of patience in getting him the puck.
Moreover, in that final sequence, Harvard had several chances to clear the puck, but just couldn't get enough behind its multiple attempts to send the puck towards the vacated B.C. goal.
The Eagles played with a seasoned confidence after Harvard went up 2-1, a conviction the Crimson would do well to observe carefully on tape and try to imitate.
Of course, this whole debate could be moot if the goal judge had a pair of glasses and counted the shot by junior assistant captain Pete Capouch that clearly went over the line with 13 minutes to go in the first period. It was clear as day to everyone behind the goal that the puck was in the net before squirting back out under B.C. goalie Scott Clemmensen.
But still, Harvard had a 2-1 lead with 42 seconds left and the Eagles won the game. That's the measure of difference between the two teams.
"We are a night-and-day different team from where were last year," Mazzoleni said. "We're not B.C., yet, but we have our sights on them."
Yeah, B.C. is better than Harvard--but just barely. And that's the whole point.
Welcome back, respect.
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