BOSTON — Dec. 9, 2009, was a chilly night in Boston. The Harvard Crimson hosted Boston College in a spirited pre-Christmas affair with the Eagles holding off Harvard last to earn a 3-2 win.
The game continued Harvard’s futility on the ice. It was the club’s 10th straight game without a win since beating Dartmouth, 5-3, on the opening night of the season. At 1-8-2, the Crimson seemed poised to possibly have one of the worst seasons in the school’s 103-year history (for the record, the 1940-41 Crimson posted a 2-9-1 record and the 1995-96 club stands as the only in school history to lose 20 games, going 13-20-1).
You’d expect coach Ted Donato to be at wits end by the time the buzzer sounded on Dec. 9. But quite to the contrary after that game, Donato addressed the media with a distinct air of hope.
“I expect that we’ll continue to improve and we’ll find ourselves on the right side of some of these games,” Donato said after the loss. “There’s a lot of reasons to think that that will be the case.”
That night, indeed, turned out to be a harbinger of things to come for the Crimson. After a 20-day break, Harvard returned to the ice and won four straight ECAC Hockey games and heading into Monday’s Beanpot semifinals might be one of the hottest teams, despite sporting a 5-11-3 record.
When the puck drops in Monday’s Beanpot opener (5 p.m. Eastern, NESN), Harvard will have the chance to avenge the Dec. 9 loss, as the Crimson face BC looking for their first Beanpot title since 1993.
“We really feel we were starting to play much better in the middle of December and the break was something that came at an essential time for us,” said Donato. “We had struggled and the guys came back with a fresh attitude.”
That fresh attitude resulted in a win out of the gates after break against a then-red hot Quinnipiac team. After two tough losses at Minnesota, Harvard came home to sweep Yale and Dartmouth before hitting the road to hand Union its first league loss of the season.
For Donato, there isn’t a way to pinpoint what helped turn things around. He feels the improvements as the season had worn on have been in many areas.
“We’ve gotten some more consistent goaltending. Our special teams have improved, especially our penalty kill,” said Donato. “Overall, it’s just a general sense of experience and maturity from our young guys.”
Youth certainly has been an issue for Harvard, which on any given night has dressed six or seven freshman and either none or one senior up front.
“We’re a young team and I think the experience, although very difficult at the beginning of the season, will prove to be beneficial,” Donato said.
One young player who has turned things on is freshman Louis Leblanc, a highly touted recruit who was the first-round draft choice of the Montreal Canadiens last summer. Leblanc has scored in all but one league game since returning from break and straight out took control in the Yale and Dartmouth wins, scoring two goals in each game.
Another bright light has been the play of goaltender Ryan Carroll. The junior hadn’t seen much playing time early with the return of Kyle Richter, who was suspended from the school a season ago for undisclosed reasons and returned to the Crimson this year, reassuming the role of No. 1 goaltender.
Richter, similar to the team, struggled early. After the losses to Minnesota, Carroll took back the reins in net and in that time has allowed just eight goals in five starts and made a career-high 47 stops in the upset of Union.
“Ryan Carroll has played very well,” said Donato, noting that he doesn’t believe that Richter’s performance had anything to do with the team’s slow start. “I think we’ve played better defensively in front of them and the goaltenders have improved like the rest of the team.”
So as the Crimson enter the Beanpot, they may possess the worst record of the four schools but certainly that’s not indicative of the potential this team has.
“I think in general most people would say that there are not as many clear-cut, top-notch teams in college hockey,” said Donato. “At the end of the season there will be a lot of teams that will have struggled a little bit and caught fire at the right time. All the teams in [the Beanpot] are dangerous.
“I think you look at BU and BC, and those two teams have proven that they are very effective at the end of the season and they have always used this tournament as a springboard to try to have success in the playoffs and beyond.”
Should the Crimson win twice in the next two Mondays, some may think of the victory as yet another Beanpot miracle. For Harvard, though, it would be more than just a miracle, it would be a defining moment.
That moment, which hasn’t happened since the Crimson disposed of BC and BU in 1993, is something that could reinvigorate hockey on a campus where sports almost always take a back seat to academics.
“I could give you a 10-page analysis on our fans. I don’t know whether they get it or not,” said senior captain Alex Beiga, who joked recently that a nearly-bald Donato has more hair than Harvard has hockey fans. “Being at Harvard, you have a high percentage of students who have other interests other than hockey.
“I don’t think they [understand the magnitude of the Beanpot], but it’s something that we’ve dealt with. The atmosphere [at the Beanpot] is unbelievable and you learn to accept it and have fun with it.
“[A win] would be a steppingstone for sure. More and more people, if we win games, we’re going to draw a larger crowd. I’ll take all the blame on that point. We’re hoping we get a good crowd every night and we hope to have a big crowd come Beanpot time but that comes with winning and being a national contending team every year.”
To win the Beanpot, though, the Crimson must first avenge the pre-Christmas loss to BC. Harvard hasn’t beat BC in a Beanpot game since 1998, when they knocked off the Eagles in the semifinal, 5-4 in overtime, before losing to Boston University in the final. Since then, Harvard’s futility has resulted in eight straight losses, including a dramatic 6-5 overtime loss in the final two seasons ago.
“We have a lot of respect for [BC],” said Donato, “but this is an opportunity for our guys to use this as a springboard to accomplish some things we want to do not only in the Beanpot but in the rest of the season.”