BOSTON, Mass. — When the two teams with the best defensive numbers in the country last season play to a 6-4 result, it’s no surprise that both coaches would say there’s room for improvement. Such was the case when No. 5 Wisconsin topped No. 4 Harvard tonight at the Bright Hockey Center.
“A lot of things happened that’ll make both teams better out of that game,” said Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson. “That’s why it’s fun to play top-level teams.”
Both teams will need to get better fast, because Harvard is hosting No. 1 Minnesota tomorrow, and Wisconsin is hosting the Gophers next weekend.
For too much of the game, the No. 4 Crimson (6-2-1) struggled to maintain good defensive zone coverage, while the No. 5 Badgers (10-3-0) struggled to stay out of the box. Down the stretch, Harvard couldn’t stay out of the box or cover, and in turn handed Wisconsin the lead and the victory.
The Crimson lost despite tri-captain Nicole Corriero’s third hat trick in four games, good for 12 goals over that stretch. Sophomore Lindsay Macy led a balanced Badger attack with two goals and an assist. Goaltender Meghan Horras stopped 39 of 43 for the Badgers and Ali Boe stopped 24 of 29 for the Crimson.
As has been the case though much of the college season, the course of the game was determined largely by who drew penalties. After Harvard was dealt two whistles early on, Wisconsin received 10 of the next 12 non-matching penalties, the last of which allowed the Crimson to complete a comeback from a 4-2 deficit. Harvard went 2-for-10 on the power play.
“I knew it was going to be called tight, I just didn’t know it would be tight one way,” Johnson said. “You try to get into the flow of the game, and you get four or five penalties called on you, it’s tough to get back in the rhythm, because usually your good players are killing penalties and they get tired and it’s a tough grind.”
Just seconds after tying the game, Harvard started marching to the box too with two straight penalties, followed by matching minors that took out its lone senior defenseman. Although Wisconsin finished 0-for-5 on the power play aside from an empty-net goal in the final minute, the third period power plays led to the Badger lead.
Just five seconds after the second penalty expired, Harvard faltered in transition. The Crimson cleared the zone as Meghan Mikkelson kept the puck just inside the blue line. She fed Nikki Burish wide open in front of the net for a patient finish and a 5-4 Wisconsin lead.
“We made some bad decisions on our man down,” Stone said. “It became a little more of a power kill than a penalty kill.”
Given a lead for the second time, Wisconsin was not going to squander it again. The Badgers held back and barely let the Crimson out of its end in the final minutes. Harvard had new life when a Badger icing in the final minutes allowed for an extra attacker, but the Crimson struggled to control the puck. Ultimately, Grace Hutchins, a rested third-line player, stole the puck and added the empty-net finish. Harvard coach Katey Stone credited Wisconsin with putting on a lot of pressure, keeping things simple and making another comeback tough.
“My defense did a great job keeping the puck away in the second and third,” Horras said. “It made my job a lot easier.”
The referees did not. Wisconsin started strong when sophomore Sara Bauer was left free to skate out of the corner in front for a 1-0 Badger lead just 4:22 into the game, a minute after the first penalty on Harvard expired. But then three straight whistles blew on the Badgers. Horras helped Wisconsin hold the line at first, but Corriero finally beat her when she slipped the puck inside the far post on a shot that first looked like it would be a pass.
Less than two minutes later, Horras couldn’t handle a Julie Chu shot cleanly and sophomore Carrie Schroyer crashed the net and buried the rebound for the 2-1 Harvard lead at 13:58 of the first period. But Wisconsin settled down thereafter.
“As the game progressed, a lot of the kids got more comfortable with the atmosphere,” Johnson said. “I thought for the first eight or nine minutes our defensemen were a little bit nervous and back on their heels.”
Horras helped to kill one more penalty before the end of the period, which she finished with a respectable 21 saves on 23 shots. Wisconsin’s penalty kill, which has often been a serious weakness in recent years, performed well. Johnson praised Horras for not getting flustered.
“When you kill a penalty, you have to use your stick, block shots, and your best penalty killer has to be your goaltender,” Johnson said. “If those things are in place you can generally do a good job with it.”
Two goals by Macy gave Wisconsin a 3-2 lead before the first intermission. On her first goal, Macy received a pass in the slot, which Harvard was helpless to defend as she used her big body to block out the nearest defender. On her second goal, she finished an odd-man rush that was started by her linemates.
“I don’t think it was the game plan of ours to go up there and just beat them up a little bit, but when you’re playing not to lose, that stuff happens,” Macy said. “We put the body on them and played them tough.”
Harvard dug itself a deeper hole eight minutes into the second period when it permitted Jackie Friesen to break free into the zone on a pass from Nikki Burish for a 4-2 deficit.
“They made a couple very nice plays coming over the blue line, but we were the ones who turned the puck over and missed assignments,” Stone said. “Those are the things we need to clean up. We got beat out of the corner pretty handily a couple times. We need to be ready to play, all of us, not only a few us.
“The thing most disappointing to me was we gave them their opportunities today versus having them earn them today. They’re a good team, and you can’t do that. Good teams are going to capitalize on your mistakes.”
With the 4-2 lead, Wisconsin’s march to the box resumed, and the Badgers struggled to stop Corriero. She converted on a wild shot through traffic at 12:17 of the second period to cut the deficit to 4-3 soon after a penalty had expired. Harvard kept the pressure on as Wisconsin picked up three more penalties but could not net the equalizer.
“You want to kill the penalties, and then when you kill one you wonder when the next one’s coming, so you start to play soft and without touching anybody,” Macy said. “You can’t play to not lose. We had to realize that we have to go hard.”
Corriero finally did net the equalizer at 9:31 of the third period when she whiffed on a one-timer attempt on a pass from Sarah Vaillancourt and deftly deposited the puck inside the near post on the power play. That goal completed her hat trick.
“I think that our main focus was just trying to get shots on net,” Corriero said. “They have really talented defensemen, so we were just trying to throw the puck on net and have somebody driving to the net and creating a lot of chaos.”
The comeback was still a bright spot for Harvard despite the defeat.
“We had ourselves in the position to win this game, which is a good sign,” Stone said. “It’s still early, we’re still gelling together, and we have another opportunity tomorrow to play better than we did today and make some things happen.”
The Harvard team believes that today’s mistakes are all easy fixes.
“I think two or three of the goals were rebound goals where we didn’t pick up their sticks,” said Harvard tri-captain Julie Chu. “I think that’s a very easy thing to take care of, little things, like taking the extra five strides so that you have your player as opposed to letting them beat you to the net.”