BOSTON — Welcome back, Vermont.
The Catamounts returned to ECAC play in grand style, mounting a third-period comeback from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Harvard, 5-3, in front of 2,524 mostly UVM fans at Bright Hockey Center on Friday. The win was Vermont’s first in 10 months and the 250th for coach Mike Gilligan.
“This was a huge win for us,” UVM captain Jerry Gernander said. “It was special to be a part of it for Coach Gilligan.”
Gernander finished the comeback himself, scoring the game-winning goal with 5:22 remaining the third period by backhanding a rebound through a screen from the left faceoff circle to give his team a 4-3 lead.
“They teach you in mites that when you have traffic in front of the net to just shoot,” Gernander said. “The puck came to me and I did.”
The Crimson controlled play through the first two periods, outshooting Vermont 31-24, but the Catamounts came out and took the play to Harvard in the final frame. UVM created a more wide-open, pond hockey style of game, trading chance for chance and taking advantage of Crimson turnovers.
The style paid off at 5:50 when Vermont tied the game just after a power play had expired. Center Patrik Sharp hit a wide-open Jeff Miles with a cross-ice pass and Miles put it past a sliding Oliver Jonas.
In the meanwhile, Vermont senior goalie Andrew Allen allowed his team to go on the comeback trail. Harvard had numerous opportunities to widen its lead, but Allen proved up to the task, including stopping Crimson sophomore centers Dominic Moore and Brett Nowak both on mini-breakaways in the third period.
Allen made a total of 43 saves, while his counterpart Jonas stopped 35.
“We certainly had more than enough chances in this game,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “We had difficulty finishing.”
During the second period, it didn’t look like Harvard would have difficulty finishing at all. The Crimson took a 2-1 lead on a pair of four-on-four goals, 34 seconds apart, by assistant captain Chris Bala and freshman Tim Petit. Both players used their speed to burn their marker down the wing and put one past Allen. Bala struck first at 4:24 and Petit followed at 4:58 with his first collegiate goal.
Dominic Moore then hooked up with his older brother, captain Steve Moore, for a shorthanded goal at an even 16:00. Steve buried a golden feed from Dominic on the doorstep. It was the second straight game that the sibling tandem connected in that order for a tally, down a man.
The Crimson could not build any momentum off Steve Moore’s goal because junior Graham Mink struck just 23 seconds later to narrow the Catamount deficit to one again.
Still, for most of the game, Harvard had a distinct speed advantage that carried it to a 3-1 lead. Vermont figured out a way to neutralize the Crimson’s speed, and that opened the door for its comeback.
“Boy, Harvard surprised us with their speed,” Gernander said. “In the third period, we did a good job of getting a stick on their stick, slowing them down a little, and that made the difference.”
Both teams struggled with the man advantage. Vermont went 0-for-6 with the extra skater and Harvard went 0-for-8. Nevertheless, the power play afforded the Crimson its best chance of sending the game into overtime after junior defenseman Mark Gouett was slapped with a five-minute major for hitting freshman Tyler Kolarik along the boards from behind with just 2:10 left in the game.
The game was officiated tightly from the very beginning, as Harvard was nabbed with a rare bench minor to start the game for a pregame protocol violation. Apparently, the Crimson was late for its warm-ups.
With the victory, Gilligan has further entrenched himself in the annals of UVM hockey. He is the winningest coach in program history and is now just 10 wins away from 400 for his career. Gilligan currently ranks 21st all-time in the NCAA for career wins, and his next victory will move him into a tie for 20th place with former Minnesota coach Doug Woog.
The game also marked the return for the Crimson of junior defenseman Graham Morrell. The Natick, Mass., native redshirted 1999-2000 after shoulder surgery.
“I thought Graham played pretty well given he hasn’t played in over a year,” Mazzoleni said. “He was a little out of shape. He wasn’t able to practice full contact until Tuesday.”
The game exposed perhaps the biggest weakness of the Crimson: its inexperience at defense. Dressing two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior who redshirted leaves it susceptible to efforts like the Catamounts put forward Friday night.
“We let them dictate the style of play for the game,” Mazzoleni said. “In the third period, we moved away from our puck-possession game and played a high-tempo, chancy game. We’ll learn from this.”
Vermont sophomore Ryan Miller broke the ice, scoring on a two-on-one break at 16:10 of the first period. He also sealed the game, notching a shorthanded, empty-net goal at 19:29 of the third.
Michael Volonnino is sports editor for the Harvard Crimson.