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WORCESTER, Mass.—In the end, what the Harvard faithful will probably remember about the Crimson men’s hockey team’s 6-4 loss Friday is its breakdown in the third period, when BU scored three goals in five minutes to break a 3-3 tie.
But Harvard’s problems ran much deeper than just a brief lapse in play.
Those five minutes sealed the Crimson’s fate, but Harvard was teetering on the brink of disaster throughout the entire game. The team hung around despite a plethora of defensive breakdowns before the bottom fell out in the third.
“The story of the game was that we were sloppy defensively at times and we were a little undisciplined at times,” said captain Dominic Moore.
At least four of the Terriers’ six goals were direct results of miscues by the Crimson defense. Several other mistakes might have led to even more goals had BU brought its best game. Harvard blue liners accounted for seven of the team’s 10 penalties. Add sophomore goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris not being his usual solid self and the result is perhaps the Crimson’s worst defensive performance in what was certainly its most important game.
Statistically, this should never have happened. The Terriers are unspectacular offensively, and scoring four goals on one of the nation’s hottest goaltenders (BU’s Sean Fields) should have ensured a victory, especially since Harvard entered the game ranked second nationally in team defense, allowing 2.17 goals per game, and Grumet-Morris had the nation’s second-highest save percentage.
But hidden in those statistics were periods of inconsistency when the Crimson’s sometimes stalwart defense looked barely adequate. Those small stretches of sloppy defensive proved costly on Friday.
Two Harvard defensemen didn’t even finish the game. Sophomore Ryan Lannon was ejected for butt-ending late in the first period and junior Dave McCulloch was thrown out late in the third.
That put even more pressure on the remaining four Crimson blue liners, who were already off to a shaky start. In its best defensive effort of the day, Harvard did kill off Lannon’s five-minute major, but the fatigue from that effort and the extra ice time may have contributed to the early third-period collapse.
Some of the miscues were simply mental errors. Leading 3-2 late in the second period, the Crimson defense left Brad Zancanaro wide open in the middle of the ice, opting instead to mark other players without the puck. Zancanaro had a hockey eternity to aim his game-tying shot.
Even BU coach Jack Parker couldn’t help but wonder aloud what Harvard’s defense was doing.
“It looked like the defender just peeled and played the non-shooter, but Zancanaro was going right down Broadway,” Parker said. “It’s not like he was off-angle. He just went right down the middle.”
Brian McConnell started the Terriers’ third-period onslaught by abusing a Crimson defenseman at the blue line, creating a 2-on-1 break that put BU ahead to stay.
The killer came three minutes into the third period, when Harvard let Frantisek Skladany skate a full circle around its own net unimpeded. Grumet-Morris saved the first wide-open shot, but the still-uncovered Skladany grabbed his own rebound and gave the Terriers an insurmountable 6-3 lead.
Ultimately, the Crimson failed to improve on its performance from the previous season for the first time since 2000. Without a victory over a major nonconference foe for the second straight year, Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni senses his team might have hit a wall, at least for now.
“We dug our own hole, and we have to find a way to get out of this thing and take the next step in our program,” Mazzoleni said. “This is the second time in a row that we have made the Regionals, and we haven’t taken the next step.”
And just what is that step?
“We have to become a better defensive team consistently, and we have to become a more disciplined team,” Mazzoleni said.
Last year, Mazzoleni pointed to the lack of depth on the forward lines and said competition for lineup spots would improve consistency. That depth arrived this year, and so did the steady play.
But the Crimson did not have the same luxury on the blue line—with junior Blair Barlow playing mostly forward, the team had just six defensemen for six slots.
That should change next season with the arrival of hotshot recruit Dylan Reese, who could give this year’s regulars stiff competition for that last lineup spot.
Perhaps defensive depth will be the key to further progress for the men’s hockey program. But if it isn’t, Harvard might be staring at the same wall one year from today.
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