Harvard works for a different end to its season

Emerance Maschmeyer (Harvard - 38) - The Harvard University Crimson defeated the visiting Boston University Terriers 3-1 on Friday, November 22, 2013, at Bright-Landry Hockey Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Emerance Maschmeyer (Harvard – 38)  anchors Harvard’s stingy defense. (Melissa Wade)

Mother used to always say, “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

The hockey equivalent would be that it’s better to get to the championship and lose than never to play for a championship at all.

If that’s true, then Harvard would know better than anyone. To be sure, Katey Stone and the Crimson have also won a national championship back in 1999 when Harvard was first gaining prominence. But during the NCAA era of the sport, no other team has experienced coming close as often. Harvard has been the runner-up four times, twice as many as any other program.

The Crimson have skated out of the tunnel after the second intermission of an NCAA Championship in a tie game three times and down a goal last March, and all four times the contest and the title it would deliver have slipped away. Sometimes the deciding play has come devastatingly late — with 68 seconds left one time, and 4:19 in the second overtime another.

While the returning Harvard players didn’t come quite that close in the 2015 final, having had their hopes realistically ended when an empty-net goal put them down by three with 1:48 to play, senior defenseman Michelle Picard knows all too well the sting of a last-second defeat. She and her United States teammates had their dreams of an Olympic gold medal put on hold for a minimum of four years when Canada scored in overtime in 2014.

“Coming in second certainly stinks,” Picard said. “We train really hard to win, obviously, and that’s the goal every year. Really hungry this last year to get that national championship.”

Picard and her teammates had just finished playing a game in Duluth, the city where Harvard played its first Frozen Four Championship game, versus Minnesota-Duluth, the Crimson’s title opponent back on that day in 2003. However, the UMD team they faced in the most recent series bore little resemblance to the one from a dozen years ago, entering the series with three times as many losses as either Harvard or UMD had in all of the 2002-03 season.

Not that the current Crimson players would know what the Bulldogs looked like back then or in any year since, as the two programs last played in 2006.

“It’s exciting, that’s for sure,” Picard said. “We didn’t really know much about UMD coming in, but they didn’t know much about us either, so it’s a two-way street. Kind of figure each other out a little bit, but it was a lot of fun. Different style of game, but we’ll get there.”

It’s a safe bet that the Bulldogs knew a bit more about Harvard. This UMD team had a decided Harvard flavor, being coached by Maura Crowell, Stone’s top assistant until landing the head job at Minnesota-Duluth during the off season, and former Crimson players Samantha Reber and Laura Bellamy, the latter also serving on Harvard’s staff for two seasons. Thus, all three were part of the Harvard program in March, now watching their former team from UMD’s bench.

“Pretty rare,” Crowell said. “And pretty special for all of us. We had great times there and learned a lot from coach Stone, obviously, and wish them nothing but the best, except when they play us.”

UMD got the best of things on Friday, winning 4-2.

“There were a lot of those situations tonight where we expected too much of our goaltender and our defensemen,” Stone said. “Our forwards can be more responsible, more accountable, and they know that. We were throwing pucks back to the D after they’d worked their tails off so much.”

Saturday’s rematch in Duluth went better on both ends of the ice for Harvard, and it was the team coming away with the victory, 4-1.

“I think right now, we just need some consistency,” Picard said. “I think from game to game, we’re kind of two different teams. We’ve got to establish what makes us, us, and stick with that, and bring that every night.”

One of the things that makes the Crimson who they are is being a great defensive team.

“You don’t ever want to be scored on,” Stone said. “We’re trying to find our rhythm offensively and put the right kids together and until we do that and you get your production up, you better play good defense, otherwise, you’re not going to win too many games.”

Harvard has been able to play good defense thus far, allowing 1.18 goals per game and ranking fourth in the country in scoring defense. That effort starts with All-American goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer.

“Emerance has always been a great goaltender, and I think the more that we’ve played together, I don’t know if anything has changed on her end, but just together, us getting to know each other a lot better and just building that trust,” Picard said. “I know it’s great knowing that she’s back there, and when I make a mistake, she’s going to have my back.”

Not that Maschmeyer, a senior, is always back there. Harvard is deep at the goalie position. Both junior Brianna Laing and senior Molly Tissenbaum have career numbers that are better than even Maschmeyer’s marks for goals-against average, 1.56, and save percentage, .943.

“Honestly, I’d rather have it be that way,” Maschmeyer said. “I want to be practicing with goalies that push me every day. It helps me get better and improve my game, and I hope I do the same for them. I love having them to push me, and I want them to do good as well.”

Competition isn’t the only thing that a strong trio in net offers.

“We learn from each other,” Maschmeyer said. “If one goalie is doing something, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s working? Explain this move to me.’ We help each other out, and we want each other to do well, so it’s a friendly competition, too. We’re on the same team, so we want the best for each other. But, of course, you’re competitive; everyone wants to play.”

Maschmeyer has played the majority of the games, and she’s made the most of the opportunities, saving 95.8 percent of the shots and dropping her average goals allowed to 1.34. That’s been key for a team that underwent major changes in the off season in its roster, as well as its staff.

“Obviously we lost some pretty key players, some big players last year,” Maschmeyer said. “I think we lost seven. We have a lot of good freshmen, a lot of energy, a lot of talent. They’re doing a really good job of stepping up. Of course, it’s hard for us too. We start a season a little bit later than most other teams, as the Ivy League does, so that’s tough, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job of figuring out our roles on the team. Yeah, it puts a little bit more pressure on me, but I love the pressure.”

Stone has added Liz Keady and Lee-J Mirasolo to her coaching staff, and their pupils include six freshmen and an equal number of sophomores.

“It takes time,” Stone said. “We’re trying to keep healthy, get healthy, get some kids back in the line-up, and there are a lot of moving parts, but our kids have done really well thus far.”

While championships can’t be won in games played in October and November, the Crimson certainly haven’t done anything to make the path harder, opening at an 8-2-1 pace. That’s an improvement on a year ago, when a more veteran squad started out 2-2-2.

“There’s always going to be ups and downs in every season,” Picard said. “Yeah, absolutely, last year we struggled a bit in the beginning and picked it up. We can’t just hope that happens; we’ve got to make it happen. Each day, making strides to get better, and I think we’re getting there, so it’s exciting. We have a lot of potential, for sure.”

As the team’s captains, Picard and Maschmeyer are doing their part to make that improvement happen.

“They’re tremendous,” Stone said. “They lead by example, number one, and so that’s the best leadership you can have. They’re great kids. Everyone wants to do their best for them, and they’ve got a real pulse on what’s going on. We’ve got a lot of young kids in our program, not just freshmen but sophomores as well, that are in pretty big spots for us, and they’ve done a really nice job of making them feel comfortable, but also challenging them.”

Stone believes her team needs to rise to that challenge.

“We’ve got to ask a little bit more of ourselves, frankly, right at this point,” she said. “We can play harder than we do, and if we start playing as hard as we’re capable of, good things will come our way.”

Back on the blue line, the biggest challenge is likely filling the holes left behind by last year’s seniors. Sarah Edney, Marissa Gedman, and Josephine Pucci combined for 68 goals and 234 points in their Harvard careers. Picard now finds herself in a unit where none of the other defensemen have yet reached five goals or 20 points in their NCAA careers.

“Every year is a different year back there,” Picard said. “Everyone is doing a great job. It’s a great group of girls to be with. We’re having a lot of fun. It has its up and downs, but I think overall, we’re doing pretty good.”

While the primary responsibility is defending, not contributing to the offense, the current defensive corps lacks the shifts wearing a Harvard jersey that last year’s bunch had to draw upon.

“There’s a lot of learning going on, especially early on in the season, but the younger kids are doing a great job,” Picard said. “Last year, there was a bigger group of us that were a little bit older. We could kind of share the load of teaching. The young kids are doing an awesome job, catching up quick and not playing like younger kids.”

With that turnover, it’s not surprising that the No. 7 Crimson haven’t been a fixture at the top of the polls with the other three teams from the 2015 Frozen Four.

“Honestly, you can’t get caught up in polls, in my opinion,” Stone said. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. There’s so much going on in women’s college hockey right now — a lot of great teams, tremendous parity that you’re going to be in a dogfight every night. So you’ve got to be ready for that.”

Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than ECAC Hockey, where Harvard currently has the best winning percentage but has played one fewer game than Quinnipiac, whom it trails by one point. Most of the field is closely bunched — 10th place Yale trails the Crimson by eight points, but has three games in hand. Of the top 10 teams in the ECAC standings, only Rensselaer has more than two losses, and the Engineers are just a game under .500.

“We have to show up every night to win the game,” Maschmeyer said. “That’s what we want. We want to play in a league where we have really tight competition. Definitely from freshman year to my senior year, it’s gotten a lot more competitive. It’s awesome.”

What will be the key for Harvard to emerge on top as it did last year when it shared the season title with Clarkson?

“I think being a younger team, just the passion and the heart coming from the team,” Maschmeyer said. “Our work ethic is really good, and you could see it in practice and in games when maybe we have a little less skill than the other team. That’s what gets us through, is the hard work and the heart.”

The returning members of the squad have seen where that effort can take them, reaching the program’s first Frozen Four since 2008 and first final in 10 years.

“It was an awesome opportunity for us,” Maschmeyer said. “It’s something we expected; that was our goal all year. That was what we had our mind on from the start, so it was an awesome feeling accomplishing that.”

Now the mission is to get back to that final game and get the Crimson their first NCAA title.

“We have a different team, so you kind of figure out a different way to get there,” Maschmeyer said. “For us, I think just focusing one game at a time and never getting ahead of ourselves, because every game is a huge game for us.”