LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — A classic.
No other words will do. When Crimson sophomore Tyler Kolarik ended the ninth-longest game in NCAA championship history, Harvard had put the finishing touches on a most improbable playoff run.
Three straight overtime victories — two in double OT. A hostile environment in Lake Placid; its top rival, Cornell, in the finals. The same Cornell which won the regular season running away and has ended four of the Crimson’s past six seasons.
It was an unbelievable upset, requiring by far the best Harvard performance in a long time. From the opening faceoff, the Crimson took the play to the Big Red, playing a textbook game in the neutral zone, and not allowing the fearsome Cornell forecheck to ever get itself established.
— Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni
“When you get into overtime, it is a matter of will,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni “And we kept attacking.”
Before the season began, the ECAC championship did not look unlikely for the Crimson. The preseason favorite to take the crown, at the start of February, the Crimson were ranked No. 14 in the nation. But beginning with the Beanpot, disaster struck. Harvard was swept there, got blown out at Cornell, and finished the season losing at Yale and Princeton.
The wheels had fallen off the Crimson wagon, and nobody seemed to have any answers. With Brown and its super hot goaltender, Yann Denis coming into town, Lake Placid looked remote, let alone the Whitelaw trophy.
“There was no doubt down the stretch that we were struggling,” said junior forward Dominic Moore.
Ever since Harvard made the NCAA Frozen Four in 1993-94, the whole program has struggled. During the 1980s, Harvard was a perennial contender. The Crimson made the finals three times, capturing it all in 1989 and had three Hobey Baker winners along the way. After losing to Lake Superior State in the semifinals in 1994, the Crimson went .500 the next year and didn’t top the mediocre mark until last season.
It was in this light that Mazzoleni was hired to replace Ronn Tomassoni in 1999. The Crimson needed a fresh start. Mazzoleni certainly recruited talent; Tyler Kolarik and Tom Cavanagh, the OT heroes of Lake Placid, are the product of his salesmanship.
By the start of this season, Mazzoleni had silenced the questions on Harvard’s talent, but during the Crimson’s February tailspin, the critics shifted to Harvard’s heart, and wondered whether the whole program was ever going to stop spinning its wheels.
“When you consider how young our team is, I never expected to be here today,” Mazzoleni said. “But we have come together and learned what it takes to win. It was no fluke.”
There can be no doubts about the Crimson’s will to win after surviving Denis, Clarkson, and top-rival Cornell. It was as if Harvard turned on the switch and reached its potential once the playoffs began. While the Crimson has a ways to go until it relives the halcyon days of Bill Cleary, it has earned its trip to the NCAA tournament.
“Our legs were tired, but our hearts weren’t.” Moore said.
A classic performance. One almost a decade in the making.