3 Bad Games
Losing Streak Saved Harvard's Season
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CHICAGO Merrick Madsen looks out his bus window.
It’s a dark, cold Tuesday night in January somewhere on I-89 South. He just experienced the worst night of his collegiate career.
There are about 30 other passengers. Still, the bus is silent. Every Harvard player has his headphones in. Listening to whatever. Forgetting the last three hours. This drive from Dartmouth is different than trips back to Cambridge usually are. Madsen just gave up six goals on 18 shots as his team was taken to task 8-4 by the Big Green.
He texts his parents.
Then, he texts his goaltending coach.
Sometimes, when you talk to a loved one or a mentor, you’re not looking for answers. You need a sounding board.
“In talking with them, I came to the realization that I could get to another gear in practice,” Madsen said. “I could be working harder on the little things that you need to do in my position.”
That night, Harvard needed to collectively examine what was necessary to avoid another bad performance. The loss was the third in a row, including a 4-0 defeat at Rensselaer four days earlier.
Coach Ted Donato let the team know his frustration with the poor performance, and wasn’t able to calm down about it until the next day. He had a meeting with his staff and discussed the best way to handle the poor effort.
This Harvard team shouldn’t be losing to Dartmouth. Certainly, they can’t give up eight goals. It was a chance at two ECAC points wasted. It was the worst performance of the season.
"It definitely was the lowest (point),” senior forward Phil Zielonka said. “It was also the best thing that happened to us this year. We had to ask ourselves what we really wanted to happen this year. It's never good to lose, but we needed to learn that anything can happen in these games. When you can control something, you need to make sure you execute on it. College hockey is competitive. You're going to make mistakes, but you need to keep your focus.”
That week defined the season going forward. Harvard had its biggest reality check of the season. If you play poorly, you probably won’t win. It’s simple.
Harvard jumpstarted its season that night, in a way that wasn’t thought possible by many in college hockey. For some players, they realized they needed to be better. For the coaching staff, they knew they had to keep the players engaged, and correct the mistakes on the ice.
“As a coaching staff, we talked about there’s lots of ways to send messages,” Donato said. “Some give you more satisfaction than actually are helpful to the group. We had a video session where we were able to show clearly things that we needed to do better — everything from an effort standpoint to a structure standpoint. Moving forward after that, there was a lot clearer understanding of the way we needed to play in order to have success.”
Madsen thought the meetings helped. There’s a formula to underperforming, but teams that have talent and championship aspirations only have so many chances. Errors have to be fixed if the team is going to reach the goals set out at the start of the year.
"We do our weekly debriefs as a team,” Madsen said. “We all sat down and really analyzed the game and looked at everything we did wrong in those games. It was a 6-4 game with a couple empty-netters, and it really wasn't even that close. When we sat down and looked at all the things we did wrong, it all added up. It made us realize how important all of those things are. They seem small but they add up fast."
The next game, Harvard hosted Brown, outshooting the Bears 42-26 en route to a 3-0 victory.
“We came in that next weekend recalibrated and took it to Brown,” Madsen said. “Obviously that's not a top-tier team. It was a step forward for us. It was a big opportunity for us to just move on."
The losing streak wouldn’t be the the end of adversity for the Crimson, though. That Saturday, archrival Yale came to town. The Bulldogs, while struggling, gave Harvard everything they had. The game was scoreless with the final minutes ticking away, until Ted Hard put Yale up 1-0.
Harvard again needed an adjustment, and one to happen quickly. Not only is it a gut-check to lose to Yale, it’s further lost points they can’t afford to give up in a tight ECAC race.
With 2:07 left in the third period, Luke Esposito would be the savior. The senior put the puck past Bulldogs’ netminder Patrick Spano, securing a 1-1 tie.
The Crimson haven't lost or tied since.
Currently, Harvard has the longest unbeaten streak in the country. At 17-0-1, no one else is close. Minnesota-Duluth — Harvard’s national semifinal opponent — has the second-longest streak in the nation, at 7-0-0.
What happened that week changed this team. It gave them the push they so desperately needed to make this push.
"We knew what kind of talent we had in the locker room,” Zielonka said. “We know what kind of work ethic we have. It was basically about putting ourselves in the right mindset. Now we're seeing the results."
Harvard would roll over Boston University in the Beanpot and win a share of the ECAC regular-season championship. Entering the ECAC tournament, the Crimson faced a familiar foe in Yale. They played two games while behind, with little errors almost doing them in. Trailing in the third period in both games one and two, They found a way back.
“The response we had, we needed,” Madsen said. “We all got back to the locker room and just said to each other that we really needed big third periods. We liked a lot of what we were doing, but we had to tighten up a bit. We looked at ourselves deeper. We've been rolling for a bit, but we've been able to look back at some of the times when we needed a big response."
Harvard made it to Lake Placid, eventually winning the Whitelaw Cup. Then, the Crimson swept the East Regional with impressive victories over hometown Providence and plucky Air Force.
Throughout this streak, Harvard not only leaned on the leadership from its staff, but looked to its upperclassmen to carry the load. This team is deep in every position, but having that leadership has made the difference.
“The senior group is so dialed in, as far as focus,” Donato said. “They’re spread up and down the lineup, in different positions. They really capture the group’s attention and focus. There really hasn’t been any distractions, and I give that group a lot of credit for it.”
Harvard has all the tools to continue this run. They’ve learned the lessons from past mistakes, played through on-ice adversity and set themselves up well to win this weekend.
Now it’s time to make it happen.