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WORCESTER, Mass.—‘The Year’ should end with a game-winner in overtime, gloves and sticks on victorious flights through the air and coaches wearing loafers trying like heck not to slip on the ice as they make their way out for the celebration.
This year was supposed to be ‘The Year’ for the Harvard men’s hockey team.
But ‘The Year’ isn’t supposed to end with the captain’s eyes red from tears, one of the team’s key players wearing street clothes before the end of the game after a questionable penalty and a coach saying he didn’t see the “defensive intensity” his team needed to have in its biggest game of the season.
“Our goal was to make the Frozen Four,” Crimson captain Dominic Moore said softly after his career ended with a 6-4 loss to Boston University at the NCAA Northeast Regional on Friday afternoon. “And that didn’t happen.”
Which was disappointing, because Harvard seemed so capable of getting there. It had as many NHL draft picks (13) as any team in the nation, arguably the best player on the ice in each of its games during the later half of the season (Moore), a playoff-tested goaltender (sophomore Dov Grumet-Morris), and the invaluable experience of nearly beating the eventual NCAA runner-up during the first round of last season’s tournament.
But even with all of that, the Crimson finished this season without any trophies. It came oh-so-close last weekend, when it led Cornell, 2-1, in the ECAC championship game. The Big Red scored with a little over 30 seconds left to force overtime, and won soon thereafter.
Then there was Friday’s game with BU, a bummer of an ending to what was otherwise a very good season.
Harvard won 22 games, its most since 1994, and made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in nearly a decade. The Crimson avoided the post-exam slump that marred last year’s regular season, establishing second-half consistency in its stead. Harvard began the season No. 14 in both major polls and finished at No. 11, staying ranked every week but two.
In college hockey, though, success isn’t measured by rankings and regular-season wins. Once programs reach the level where they are expected to consistently play in the NCAA tournament, entire seasons are often judged—fairly or unfairly—on how they perform at this time of year, with little consideration given to what happened in the prior six months.
Harvard has reached that level. Coach Mark Mazzoleni, his staff and his players—to their credit—are talented enough and have achieved enough during the past two seasons to merit having their big expectations begin in March and end in April.
As Moore said numerous times during the season, the team’s goal was to reach the Frozen Four. Regardless of the fact that the Crimson was technically an underdog in Worcester, it was very reasonable for Moore and his teammates to expect that they would realize that objective.
Instead, Harvard’s season ended in frustration. It allowed more goals against BU than it had in any other game this year, and took 10 penalties for 39 minutes.
Included on that rap sheet was an iffy five-minute butt-ending call and ten-minute game disqualification on sophomore defenseman Ryan Lannon that left the Crimson with only five defensemen for the final two periods.
Lannon’s penalty was critical. In addition to taking Harvard’s best defensive blue liner out of the game, it gave the Terriers nearly five minutes on the power play to begin the second. And while BU didn’t score, having to kill such a long penalty took a physical toll on some of the Crimson’s key players—which could have played a role in BU’s game-changing three-goal burst early in the third.
There’s never an easy way to reshuffle defensive pairings with a man out, but having to do so seemed to rattle Harvard a little more than it should have. The Crimson was disorganized in the defensive zone, and the solid-yet-unspectacular Terriers made it pay.
“We have some bad defensive breakdowns,” Mazzoleni said. “And it was a very inappropriate time in our season for that to happen.”
Harvard made a run in the third, getting a goal and a string of inspired shifts from Moore—once again, the best player on the ice for either team—but even that wasn’t enough to undo its defensive transgressions.
And so the Crimson’s season ended at the Worcester Centrum for the second consecutive year, only this time Harvard couldn’t leave the building saying it was still the ECAC champion.
There had to be somewhat of an empty feeling in the players’ stomachs. Last year’s win over Cornell in the ECAC title game was so epic, so perfect, that it stayed with them during the off-season much more than the overtime loss to Maine in the NCAAs.
But this season, there was no emotional win to rival last season’s drama at Lake Placid—only emotional losses. The Crimson didn’t beat a single NCAA-tournament team. Not one. It went 0-7-1 against them, including 0-3 against both BU and Cornell.
Sure, there were some great games among the eight. The Beanpot semifinal against BU was an instant classic and has helped to build the gladiator-like image of Terrier goaltender Sean Fields, after his now-famous “toe save” on sophomore defenseman Noah Welch.
And for the second straight season, the ECAC championship game was a gem. It had great offense, great defense, great goaltending and great individual efforts (Moore’s pocket-pick of Cornell defenseman Mark McRae and his goal seconds later come to mind). It also had a hero—Big Red forward Sam Paolini, the former walk-on who scored the overtime game-winner.
Legends like Fields and Paolini were built this season. Unfortunately for the Crimson, too many of them were wearing the wrong colors.
Apart from the big-game losses, though, Harvard had a very successful season marked by consistency—something it sorely lacked last year. This squad was the most successful men’s hockey team at this school in a long time, and it has every reason to be proud of the way it played.
The members of the outgoing senior class—the first to play under Mazzoleni for four years—can see a huge difference in where the program is now—having made two straight NCAA appearances and won an ECAC title—versus where it was during their 11-17-2 freshman season.
And that’s just it. The program has raised its level so much during the past four years that it had everyone thinking something special was on the way.
This year really looked like ‘The Year.’
So was that it? Has ‘The Year’—or as close as we’ll see to ‘The Year’—already come and gone?
Probably not, given the way the program has continued to improve.
The good news is that the Crimson only graduates four seniors. The bad news is that two—Moore and Brett Nowak—were among the team’s top three scorers and true difference-makers in all three zones, and unfortunately it doesn’t look like Dominic Moore has another brother on the way.
So proven scorers like junior Tim Pettit, sophomore Tom Cavanagh and junior Tyler Kolarik will have to be even better next year. Role players that came on at the end of this season—sophomore Brendan Bernakevitch, freshman Charlie Johnson and junior Kenny Turano—have to increase their contributions even more.
All of the defensemen are back, which bodes well, and Grumet-Morris, as a junior, will already be in his second season as a full-time starter. The personnel will be there.
Now, as Mazzoleni said after the BU loss, the program has to “take the next step” and accomplish two things it hasn’t done yet during his tenure: beat good nonconference teams on a consistent basis during the regular season, and beat those same teams in the NCAA tournament.
Do that, and next year could be ‘The Year.’
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