BY PEYTON FINE
The Crimson fall to Nebraska-Omaha in NCAA tournament play.
Harvard entered the NCAA tournament on a roll. They had just won the grueling ECAC tournament to earn a spot in the tournament and were poised to make another run in the NCAA tournament. The road before them looked easy as the Crimson watched the first seed in their region lose just minutes before the puck dropped in their first NCAA tournament game since 2006. Standing in front of Harvard’s trip to the quarterfinals was the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a team that had only won two of their last ten games and had not played a game in over two weeks. However, in postseason hockey, conventional wisdom goes out the window. Hot streaks and time between games takes a backseat to good goaltending and timely penalties. Harvard had neither in its favor.
Two minutes into the first period, the importance of goaltending shone bright. A seemingly harmless shot from just across the blue line was easily stopped by Harvard netminder Steve Michalek ’15. However, Michalek did not cover the puck for a faceoff in Harvard’s defensive zone or turn it away to the boards. Unbeknownst to Mickalek, the puck remained just in front of his left leg pad. The Maverick front line charged in, and in the ensuing mess of bodies the puck was poked into the back of the net to put the Crimson behind early.
After the initial shock of falling behind early, Harvard began to pull the game back to even and grabbed the momentum. However, Omaha goalie Ryan Massa ’15 was giving the Crimson a taste of what was to come, not making any mistakes. Massa kept rebounds to a minimum and turned numerous shots directly to the boards. However, at the end of the period, the second key to postseason hockey—timely penalties—reared its ugly head at the Crimson. With two minutes left in the first period, Harvard Brayden Jaw ’16 was called for a tight tripping call to put the Crimson a man down. Thirty seconds later, Harvard lost another man to a boarding call. With ninety seconds left in the opening period, Harvard found itself playing five-on-three and conceded a second goal.
With Omaha having a two-goal lead in the second period, a slugfest of opposing styles was in order. Harvard, unwilling to go full bore on the offensive to score with so much time remaining, found Omaha already tucked into a defensive shell. The ensuing twenty minutes found the Crimson without enough men forward to trouble the shell of the Mavericks, and the Mavericks refusing to commit men forward in fear of conceding a goal. It led to a period with the fewest shots on goal, no penalties, and an unchanged score line.
The third period saw the Crimson come out with fire in their eyes and an eye towards offense. Within five minutes, the Harvard had earned its first penalty. It seemed like the tide of postseason hockey necessities could be turning Harvard’s way. However, Omaha’s goalie Massa would follow up his appetizer from the first period with the main course of incredible goal tending. He made saves during Harvard’s first power play to both his glove side and stick side, made saves off the mask and blocker, and visibly frustrated the Crimson. Harvard kept up the pressure, and Jimmy Vesey ’16 struck at the midway point with his nation leading 32nd goal of the year. The Crimson would bring the game to within one at that point and further ramp up the pressure.
With twelve minutes elapsed in the third period, Harvard had already amassed more shots on goal then in the first two period combined. Except for the Vesey goal, none found the back of the net. The game was played almost entirely in Omaha’s defensive zone and looked to continue that way when Harvard was again struck with an untimely penalty. Just after the thirteen minute mark, Harvard’s Colin Blackwell ’16 was called for tripping. Harvard was forced onto the defensive for the next two minutes. After killing off Blackwell’s penalty, Harvard found itself with another penalty. This one on Luke Esposito ’17. The Crimson found itself a goal down and a man down with two minutes remaining. Harvard was forced to go empty net, and they gave up two frivolous goals to take the final score to four to one.
Harvard ends the season with twenty-one wins, the most since 2006, which was also the year of its last trip to the NCAA tournament. Harvard graduates three key players including defensemen in Max Everson and Patrick McNally, and starting goaltender Steve Michalek. But the Crimson should be very strong again offensively especially if Vesey holds off on the NHL again and returns for his senior year. However, in the postseason, it’s more than talent and streaks that matter. Timely penalties and goaltending make the difference, and on this day, the Crimson simply did not have it.
Peyton Fine ’17 (email@example.com) found Harvard’s unceremonious exit tough to swallow, but looks for the Crimson to build on its success.