Olympic seasons tend to be a little strange. It’s like removing the aces from the deck after sitting down to play poker. Eventually, everybody adjusts to the fact that the aces are gone, but in the hockey world, it can be tough on a team that was originally dealt a couple of aces.
The 2014 Olympics should have impacted Harvard more than anyone. Coach Katey Stone and Josephine Pucci, Lyndsey Fry, and Michelle Picard, three players with eligibility remaining, have taken the season off to represent the United States. The remaining Crimson players didn’t see that as being an excuse for a down year.
“I think right off the bat, they were determined to make this season really good and keep it as business as usual,” interim head coach Maura Crowell said.
Harvard’s business means contending in ECAC Hockey, and in most seasons, nationally as well.
“They take a lot of pride in that, and obviously, they know what a lot of people had to say about all the losses and what kind of season is that going to be,” Crowell said.
I confess to being one of those people. History is often useful in predicting the future, and Wisconsin faced a similar situation four years ago when coach Mark Johnson and stars Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight took an Olympic hiatus. The Badgers were defending NCAA champions, but proved to be a model of inconsistency, slumped to fourth in the league standings, and failed to reach the WCHA semifinals for the only time in their history.
The Crimson, on the other hand, have refused to act like an underdog.
“I think it motivated them to prove themselves to each other and to everybody else,” Crowell said. “I do think having so many young kids, such a big freshman class, brought a ton of energy to our team. Sometimes those young kids, they don’t know any better. They don’t have preconceived notions about who is good in the league, who is not; they just play.”
The rookies and their teammates at No. 6 Harvard have played well. The Crimson (19-3-3, 14-2-2 ECAC Hockey) have excelled against the best, recording three wins and three ties in their six games versus currently ranked teams. Crowell says that the talented, young players have meshed with the veterans, who have taken on leadership roles in addition to captain Marissa Gedman.
“I think the opportunities that certain players have been able to get as well have built their confidence and everybody is involved,” Crowell said.
Her team needs everyone to be involved, because nobody ranks in the top 20 in points per game.
“Although we don’t have a prolific goal scorer like the kids we’re going up against [in Tuesday's Beanpot game versus Boston University, Sarah] Lefort with I think 45 points and [Louise] Warren with close to that, we’ve been able to spread it out pretty well and get contributions from a lot of different people,” Crowell said. “I would assume that would make us tough to play against, because you can’t just zero in on one or two kids.”
That proved to be the case against BU. Both Lefort and Warren scored for the Terriers, but Harvard was able to counter with a goal from leading scorer Miye D’Oench, the first goal of Jessica Harvey’s collegiate career, and an overtime game-winner by Samantha Reber. D’Oench’s tally came 2:27 after Warren had given BU a 2-1 lead midway through the final period.
“We’ve been down in a bunch of games, and aside from Northeastern and a couple others, have been able to come back and come up with wins or at least ties,” Crowell said.
Reber’s winning goal offered a brief glimpse into how the Crimson’s season has unfolded. BU was pressuring in the Harvard zone as the final minute of overtime wound down. Off a defensive zone draw, the Crimson sent the puck down the ice for what looked likely to be icing until D’Oench outraced both defensemen to it. Meanwhile, Harvard was winning all the other races back down the ice. D’Oench got the puck back to Gedman who found Reber alone in front with just 10 seconds left.
“Plays that don’t look very dangerous, whether its Miye in the corner in a one-on-two situation, she somehow can manage to get the puck on net,” Crowell said. “We try to go to the net hard and clean up those dirty-area rebounds. They don’t have to be pretty goals; we’ll take whatever we can get. I think the speed of our team helps us get into those situations.”
D’Oench’s tying goal definitely fit in the gritty category, as it involved multiple whacks at the puck after the goaltender thought she had it.
“Maybe we’re on the outside of the ice, but we’re always looking to get the pucks to the middle of the ice and create some havoc in the slot,” Crowell said.
Opportunistic as it may be, the Crimson offense can muster only an average of 2.88 goals per game, so that increases the importance of the defensive game.
“We have very good defenders; Sarah Edney, I would say, is one of the best in the country,” Crowell said.
Harvard may have good defensemen, but at times, it doesn’t have many of them. With Briana Mastel out of the lineup against BU and the team down to 13 skaters, Crowell had to move senior forward Elizabeth Parker back in order to get four members in the blue-line rotation.
Most times, the Crimson are able to make the sparse numbers work.
“With Emerance [Maschmeyer] backstopping us, it helps give us a chance to win every night,” Crowell said.
Opponents average just 1.32 goals per game, in part because the forwards help out defensively. Harvard’s defensive scoring average has been aided by killing an astounding 95.5 percent of its penalties.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything magical over here on the penalty kill; we’re just preparing,” Crowell said. “We have a good combo of kids that are experienced and confident in what they’re doing, and obviously, a good goaltender makes your penalty kill that much better.”
Whether it is Maschmeyer or freshman Brianna Laing, Harvard’s goaltending ranks among the nation’s best.
“We rely on our goaltenders a lot,” Crowell said. “I think a lot of people have made a lot out of, oh, we get outshot in it’s probably over 90 percent of our games.”
Because its goalies stop over 95 percent of the shots they face, the shot disadvantage usually winds up being a moot point. That’s also true in the other direction; the Crimson had an advantage in shots in two of their three losses, most recently in falling behind Northeastern, 4-1, in the Beanpot’s first round and losing, 4-3, when Maschmeyer was pulled after yielding three goals on 13 shots.
“Clearly, we rely on our goaltending quite a bit, and when that is not 100 percent back there, it certainly will shake our foundation,” Crowell said. “But I think it’s also good for us to have gone through that experience last week against Northeastern to show that, hey, she is human too and what happens when our goalie isn’t 100 percent, other people need to step up. I think they did eventually, but it’s just too deep of a deficit to have to overcome.”
The success leads one to wonder what kind of magical season Harvard would be having if the three players competing in Sochi were instead wearing their Crimson uniforms. They’ve had to inspire from a distance.
“It’s been great for us all season to be cheering those guys on,” Crowell said. “Finally, to have the Olympics here and be watching them on TV and watching coach Stone on the bench, it’s just awesome. We’re so proud of them and really looking forward to the upcoming games. Our players are very tuned in and very supportive. Hopefully, we can take some of what they’re doing on the ice and put it to use ourselves.”
Harvard holds a one-point lead in the ECAC race over Cornell with Clarkson two points back. The Golden Knights visit on Friday in a game that will go a long way toward determining where teams finish atop the league.
“I think they’re really well-balanced,” Crowell said. “They have some dangerous weapons up front, [Erin] Ambrose and others on ‘D,’ and obviously [Erica] Howe in net. They’re well balanced, and I think we just have to play a complete game like we did when we were up there. We kept it very tight, really good defensively. We won, 2-0, and were able to keep the [Jamie Lee] Rattrays and the Ambroses quiet, and that will be important on Friday.”
No matter the result, Harvard will still have work to do, as the schedule finishes with St. Lawrence at home and road trips to Yale and Brown.
“We’re happy where we’re sitting,” Crowell said. “Obviously, it’s a tight race and we have some huge games coming up in the last couple weeks here. We’re just going to take one at a time and hopefully take care of business and remain at the top.”