The dust has settled on the 2018-2019 men’s hockey season, though developments for the Harvard team have continued past its season-ending shutout loss to UMass in the NCAA Regional Semifinal. With captains elected and spring training underway, the squad can look back on a year that featured successful aspects — the Crimson’s return to national rankings and the NCAA Tournament among them — and growth that bodes well for the season ahead.
This is not to say the fall won’t have its challenges. Chief among them will be learning how to make up for the loss of junior defenseman Adam Fox, who recently announced his departure for the NHL’s New York Rangers. Harvard’s high-powered offense and NCAA-best power play were in no small part thanks to the skilled blue line spearheaded by the Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist. Players will have all summer, though, to imagine what the team will look like without him.
Even without Fox, the Crimson will be seeking consistency — a goal it came closer to this season than in the year prior. A deep, talented rookie class meant the team faced significant adjustment time last fall. The squad took a turn for the better by the new year, however. While the momentum was enough to put Harvard back in the USCHO top 20 rankings, a Beanpot semifinal loss served as a stumbling block, and close losses at the tail end of the regular season cost the Crimson a chance at the Whitelaw Cup. The team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — but UMass stormed past Harvard in a 4-0 drubbing.
“The narrative [of the season] is a pretty positive one,” coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “We made a great deal of improvement during the year. We obviously had a real young group in some impactful spots…. There’s always some disappointment in not being able to collect any trophies, if you will...but all in all there was a lot of positives to focus on.”
BACK FOR MORE
For the Crimson, the 2017-2018 season could be best described as frustrating. The team had no shortage of skill, with then-junior and now-NHL forward Ryan Donato setting the pace. But an inability to close out winnable games left Harvard with multiple could-have-beens. The attitude, then, toward the 2018-2019 season was one of optimism and determination not to repeat those mistakes. The previous year’s disappointment was reflected in the preseason polls, as the Crimson was ranked fifth in the ECAC with limited national spotlight. That made no difference to the team, which had expectations of its own.
“Starting at the beginning of the year we knew we had a ton of talent and a ton of upside,” co-captain Michael Floodstrand said. “We knew that we were going to be a second-half team.”
Harvard’s freshman class was both a boon and a challenge. The rookies certainly brought skill; forward Jack Drury and defenseman Jack Rathbone were also NHL draft picks. Any group of freshmen takes time to adjust to the college game. The question was, how long would these players take? And how long could the Crimson afford to wait?
The squad’s exhibition opener against the U.S. NTDP under-18 team was an early sign, perhaps, that Harvard had a ways to go — the game ended in a 6-3 loss for the Crimson. But the U-18 group was notoriously talented and had taken down multiple NCAA powerhouses during its tour of the college ranks.
With this small consolation in mind, Harvard headed to Hanover, N.H., for its first competitive game. The Big Green has proven a troublesome travel partner, always poised to steal a game. But few could have foreseen the 7-6 overtime barn-burner that ensued. Two power play tallies from sophomore defenseman Reilly Walsh, a debut goal from rookie Baker Shore, and a staggering 5-for-7 night on the man advantage were not enough to earn the Crimson a win.
But the biggest question mark prompted by the loss was in net. Starting the season for the first time, senior net-minder Michael Lackey had a putrid beginning (7.04 GAA, .741 SV%). Thanks to an injury after his freshman year and the success of fellow goaltender Merrick Madsen ’18 thereafter, Lackey had collected little in-game experience in his career thus far, despite his seniority. Now that the position between the pipes was his to lose, though, Lackey’s rocky start was especially concerning. Nevertheless, the coaching staff was careful to point out that the team as a whole was lacking in defensive responsibility.
“That was one of the crazier games I’ve...played in,” Floodstrand said. “The thing for me was...we scored six or seven goals, played horribly defensively. But if we’d just tightened a few things up we beat that team 6-0…. You’ve got to see those things as blessings early on in the year, things you can learn from.”
A week later, Harvard hoped to set the ship right with its home opener against Quinnipiac. The coaching staff had elected to start junior backstop Cam Gornet in place of Lackey. Gornet allowed a puck to squeak past him early in the contest, and the Crimson spent the next 50-odd minutes trying to catch up to the Bobcats. Some relief arrived in the next day’s battle against Princeton, which ended in a 4-4 tie. Three games in, Harvard secured the first point of its season.
Another contest ended in a stalemate: on the road against Yale, the Crimson opened scoring but skated to another draw. The energetic New Haven crowd witnessed several flashes, though, that Harvard would hone over the course of the season: a reliable Walsh rocket on the power play, a steadier Lackey, and big-time moments from Zerter-Gossage, to name a few. The payoff came the very next day, as the Crimson bested Brown, 5-2. At last there was a tally in the win column.
ON THE UP AND UP
“As much talent as we had, you can’t win in college hockey if you don’t have a solidified system and everyone’s not on the same page,” Floodstrand said.
That system began to come together in late November. While the rest of the school prepared for The Game, the team faced its first ranked opponent in then-No. 18 Arizona State. The weekend double-header offered Harvard a chance to test itself against a squad that had beaten some of the best of the best already; while the Crimson’s man-advantage play helped it to a 4-1 win in the first game, the Sun Devils took the second in overtime. The power play squad’s efficiency made it the best in the country (36.4%), a rank it held effectively all season.
Perhaps the season’s biggest challenge thus far came the next week. Harvard took on then-No. 15 Cornell at Madison Square Garden and gladly rose to the historic occasion. Its 4-1 victory came atop three assists from rookie forward Casey Dornbach and the most solid showing to date from Lackey, who had grown more comfortable in his starting role with time. While the neutral-ice, non-conference game did not count towards the Crimson’s ECAC points total, it certainly provided a valuable statement win for the all-important PairWise rankings — the decider of NCAA Tournament berths.
Harvard breezed past Colgate after the Thanksgiving break, only to come up short against a much-revitalized Cornell squad. Though it was only the beginning of December, the Big Red loss was the last conference contest of 2018 — the other two being a victory against Atlantic Hockey foe Bentley and an exhibition against Concordia.
“Going into Christmas break, we knew that we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Floodstrand admitted. “But I just can remember the feeling of like, ‘we’re a very good team, I think we’re going to make a good second[-half] run.’”
Winter break saw rookie Jack Drury — by then the team’s top-line center — represent the U.S. at World Juniors, earning a silver medal just as the Crimson returned to the ice again. A close call went Harvard’s way in its overtime victory against RPI when referees awarded Dornbach the winning goal after a lengthy review. 2019 began with a win right off the bat, unlike the season itself — the first indication that the team was ready to roll.
Even in January, the Beanpot was on the team’s radar, and for good reason. The Crimson had a taste of its Boston foes in a game against BU, though the result was a draw. The next matchup, against Princeton, broke a long Harvard win streak: the Tigers’ 4-2 win was their first against the Crimson since 2013.
Redemption arrived the next day against then-No. 6 Quinnipiac, however. Lackey’s 46 saves made the difference in a 2-1 Harvard win, holding onto a shutout until a Bobcat tally with 27 seconds left in regulation. Where the team would have liked to ride that momentum into February, though, a formidable obstacle lay in its path.
The season series-deciding clash against Cornell would take place at raucous Lynah Rink. The Crimson owed the Big Red for the previous season’s Lynah heartbreaker, but revenge was in short supply. Cornell shut out Harvard, as Big Red net-minder Matt Galajda once again played spoiler. That disappointment was sweetened slightly by the following contest against Colgate, in which the Crimson completed its season sweep of the Raiders.
To close out the month, Harvard played host to then-No. 9 Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Against the Golden Knights, the more challenging opponent of the two, the Crimson appeared as though it would concede another winnable game. After squandering a 3-1 lead, however, Harvard locked down the win in overtime. The Saints were positively steamrolled by the Crimson, down 6-0 at one point before the final result of 7-3. Lackey was given a period of rest after shutting out St. Lawrence for 40 minutes — a task made slightly easier by the fact that he only faced nine shots. The win marked the team’s first four-point weekend of the season.
“Eventually in the second half [of the season] we started stringing together games...where we didn’t really miss periods like we did at the start [of the year],” Zerter-Gossage said. “We kind of developed that as we went forward.”
The positive result only brought more good news. The following week, Harvard broke into the USCHO rankings for the first time since dropping out in November of 2017. With confidence on its side, the squad prepared to dispatch a visiting Dartmouth before heading into the Beanpot semis. The Big Green nearly caught the Crimson napping; despite being outshot, Harvard’s late goals undid the effect of Dartmouth’s pressure.
ALMOST AT THE FINISH LINE
Things didn’t go exactly as planned when the Crimson took the ice at TD Garden, facing Boston College for a chance to play for the Beanpot trophy. Though the 2-1 loss was as close as it appeared on paper, “almost” was hardly a consolation — especially considering that Harvard’s prolific power play had not been able to make its mark. Once again, the Crimson would play in the consolation game.
Of course, with the team’s ranking and a weekend clash against Union, it could not afford to sit back. Even a nominally low-stakes consolation game against Boston University would have PairWise ramifications; Harvard did not want to rely on an ECAC auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament, given how competitive the conference was shaping up to be. The conference matchup versus the Dutchmen, another ranked ECAC team, would be especially important in terms of how the Crimson responded after its Beanpot disappointment.
“I think that as a team we believed that we would ultimately have success,” coach Donato said. “The guys believed in what we needed to do to have success and what kind of improvement we needed to have…. They believe in the process of what we were doing.”
That response came loud and clear, as Harvard took the Union game, 5-3, after going a perfect 4-for-4 on the power play. Fox pocketed four assists on the night, and at that point in the season, he also led college hockey in power play points per game (0.82). With that done, the Crimson returned to the Garden and skated past BU by a score of 5-2, thanks to junior forward Frédéric Grégoire’s two-goal night and key assists from Walsh and junior defenseman John Marino.
Harvard headed up to North Country with a six-game conference winning streak, hoping to sweep both Clarkson and St. Lawrence. Though the Saints provided more resistance than they did at Bright-Landry, the Crimson overcame an early deficit to win, 3-2. After taking the lead early against the Golden Knights, Harvard suffered a double-blow: first, Lackey was injured in a net-front collision, and then, after he left the ice, Clarkson took the lead. The team had missed out on two more within-reach conference points — but perhaps more importantly, the Crimson was staring at a question mark in goal for the first time since October, after which point Lackey had totally turned around his play.
Indeed, it would be Cam Gornet between the pipes for the last regular-season weekend at home. With the conference race tighter than ever, the four points at stake against Brown and Yale were imperative. When the Bears jumped to a 2-0 lead, it seemed as though the hosts would have an uphill climb ahead of them.
But after a month of missing the net, Harvard’s power play — still the best in the nation despite the drought — found its stride; that, and Zerter-Gossage’s clutch timing, completed the comeback. On Senior Night, Lackey could only watch from the stands as Gornet faced down the Bulldogs and, in a happy surprise for his team, shut the door on Yale entirely. Gornet earned the Tim Taylor Cup for his efforts, and the Crimson earned its first home win against the Bulldogs since 2017.
By the final weekend of the regular season, Harvard was playing for a share of the Cleary Cup, given to the regular-season ECAC leaders. So were the other three teams rounding out the conference’s top four, however. Buoyed by goals from four different rookies, the Crimson overcame RPI in the first contest of the weekend by a score of 4-1.
In its last contest Harvard was facing another Cleary Cup hopeful, Union. While the power play made the difference against the Dutchmen the last time around, though, this time it was failure to execute that cost the Crimson. The team was down by a goal in the third period when it was gifted a 5-on-3 opportunity — one it was unable to cash in on. Ultimately, Harvard had to settle for two points on the weekend, enough to guarantee an ECAC first-round bye but not enough for a share of the conference title.
For the second straight year, the Crimson would play host to Dartmouth for the ECAC Quarterfinals. This time, however, the hosts were determined not to let the Big Green steal Game 1 and put them on the ropes. That effort proved successful: on Friday, Harvard rode a three-point night from Adam Fox to victory and completed a comeback in overtime to put Dartmouth away on Saturday.
The quick result meant an extra day to prepare for Lake Placid. The weekend also marked a milestone for Fox, who set a personal high in points in a single season, tying a program record set by Mark Fusco ’83.
“I’m always reluctant to really go deep into [legacy] while the guy is still here, but I think we’re watching one of the best players that has worn our jersey,” said coach Donato that night in March. “[Fox has] been tremendous. He makes others around him better, he’s very underrated defensively, and he never really gets down. He keeps the bench positive and confident, and he’s a heck of a player.”
Once again, the Crimson made the trip up to Lake Placid to face Clarkson in the conference semifinals. This time it was the Golden Knights’ turn to run away with an early lead; at the halfway mark, Harvard was down 3-0. The Crimson had just managed to come within a tally when a controversial Clarkson goal was scored and upheld, effectively whittling away its momentum — the game’s final result was a 5-2 Golden Knights win.
But the season wasn’t over yet. Harvard’s ranking was high enough to warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, as the team had hoped. As a four-seed, the Crimson would face a top seed in the Regional Semifinal — in this case, then-No. 4 UMass, home to the nation’s most dangerous defenseman in sophomore Cale Makar.
While Harvard was most certainly the underdog, Lackey was returning to the net and the team’s power play could make a dent in any opponent. For the audience, the matchup was worth the chance to see Makar and Fox face off. In the end, the Crimson’s man-advantage squad ended up a moot point; unable to generate any offense against the stifling Minutemen, Harvard was summarily handed a 4-0 loss.
“It happens all so quick, you don’t realize how small a part you are in this huge world of hockey and even how small you are in Harvard hockey’s history,” said Floodstrand, reflecting on his college career. “There’s something that’s a little sad about that, but also something to look forward to, knowing that you established something at this school and you built something and you were a part of something at this school and a storied program.”
The Class of 2019 certainly had a part to play in the Crimson’s history. The six seniors made three trips to the NCAA Tournament, one Frozen Four run, and four Lake Placid trips. Floodstrand (114 GP), Zerter-Gossage (128 GP), and defenseman Jacob Olson (115 GP) all played well over 100 games in a Harvard sweater. Lackey closes out his Crimson career with personal bests in just about every category and will don the Providence College sweater next season as he looks to cash in on his final year of NCAA eligibility, courtesy of his double labrum surgery three summers ago.
Another year brings another banner season for a Crimson star player — this time, it was Adam Fox, who was bested in the Hobey Baker voting by none other than Makar. Though he did not receive college hockey’s most prestigious honor, Fox holds the Harvard record for most points by a defenseman in a single season (9–39—48) and became the first blue-liner to reach 100 career points as a junior since Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz in 2011-2012, finishing the year with 116 points (22–94—116).
“He’s a guy that, as a former player, you really can appreciate the deception, the skillfulness, the little things that he does that throw people off his scent,” coach Donato said. “It’s really great to watch. The way he carried himself off the ice is something that I think we can always be proud of…. It can be sometimes bittersweet [to have a player leave] but I think in a lot of ways we’re family.”
With Fox departing for the Big Apple, his fellow defensemen will play even more important roles. John Marino, who will serve as co-captain in 2019-2020, provides stability on the back end but is more than capable of generating offense, too. Expect the points load on the blue line to be shared primarily by puck-moving defenders Walsh, who partnered with Fox on the power play, and Rathbone, Fox’s even-strength defensive partner. An incoming freshman or two will also contribute to filling the scoring void left in Fox’s stead.
Co-captains Floodstrand and Zerter-Gossage steadied the boat all season with timely goals and focused, passionate play. A still-young forward corps will have to make up for their absences, though it will certainly have the speed and skill to do so.
In terms of personnel, though, the biggest question mark surrounds the man in the mask. Will the coaching staff turn to Gornet, the oldest and most experienced of the team’s net-minders next season? Or will a promising rookie take the starting job? Lackey shut down his critics with his own performances; perhaps Cambridge crowds will be surprised by the player between the pipes once again. But before next season, there is still time to reflect.
“I haven’t put too much thought into how we want to be remembered,” Floodstrand said, hesitating. “Every day, I think the only thing you can ask for — I guess, looking back on it, I’d like to be remembered [for] just working hard, and giving everything you have to the program.... We laid it all out there.”
—Staff writer Stuti Telidevara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StutiTelidevara.
—Staff writer Spencer Morris conducted the interviews for this piece. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.