BOSTON — On the night Harvard honored the legendary Bill Cleary, it played Bill Cleary hockey.
Harvard and Yale each put 37 shots on goal in the wide-open, offensive style of college hockey that Cleary favored throughout his career, as the Crimson defeated its historic rival, 6-4, in front of a sold out Bright Hockey Center on Friday night. The win clinched home ice for Harvard and moved the Crimson into third place in the ECAC.
But the highlight of the contest came during the first intermission, when Harvard retired Cleary’s old No. 4 jersey. It was the first number retired by the school for any sport in its 150-year history of intercollegiate competition.
The unprecedented action was a tribute to Cleary’s career in Harvard athletics, one that spanned seven decades — from selling programs at football games as a teen to guiding the program to a national championship to serving as Athletics Director, a position he is retiring from effective in June.
Hobey Baker winners Mark Fusco, Scott Fusco and Lane MacDonald, who captained the 1989 championship team, were on hand to honor their old coach.
The ceremony was intended to surprise Cleary. Harvard senior defenseman Tim Stay wore his usual No. 4 jersey during the first period, but in Ray Bourque fashion, took it off during the festivities to reveal a No. 3 shirt underneath and handed his old uniform to the man of the hour.
“It was a real emotional moment,” said Yale coach Tim Taylor, Harvard Class of 1963. “Billy has helped my career out so much and what he has meant to Harvard and this sport is just tremendous.”
“What he did as a player here was just unbelievable, even Lane MacDonald, for as good a career as he had, didn’t have Cleary’s numbers,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “But in typical Billy fashion, he came back to the locker room after the game and told the kids the best thing about the night was that they beat Yale.”
The Crimson beat the Bulldogs in a wild contest that saw Harvard storm out of the gates for three goals in the first 12 minutes of the contest. Yale came back to tie the score on Adam Sauve’s second tally of the night, a controversial goal that went in off his skate at 6:39 of the second period.
Harvard claimed the lead for good when senior Harry Schwefel took a deft pass from sophomore Brett Nowak on the doorstep and rifled it over goaltender Pete Dobrowolski’s glove at 7:55 of the second.
Nowak had a dominant game for the Crimson, registering a goal and two assists as his unit of Schwefel and freshman Kenny Turano was easily Harvard’s best on the night, combining for nine points. Nowak’s goal came with under four minutes in the second period and proved to be the game winner. Schwefel won the faceoff straight back to him and he dipsy-doodled into the slot and pumped a shot short side to give Harvard a 5-3 lead.
“It was a good test for our team after they came back,” Nowak said. “My line has been working really well together. We’re having fun.”
Yale, however, was fighting for home ice and did not go quietly. The Bulldogs put 16 shots on goal in the third period and pinned the Crimson deep in its zone. Its offense, which had scored 19 goals in its past three games, pressed hard, but could only manage Evan Wax’s power-play goal with 9:02 left to play.
The Bulldogs had plenty of high-quality scoring chances, including a magnificent two-on-one where Ryan Stevens fed Nick Deschenes, but Jonas proved up to the task.
“We kept digging ourselves deep holes in this game,” Taylor said. “But I was proud of the way our team kept trying to climb out. I thought we really took the play to them in the third, but Jonas was excellent.”
Jonas stopped 33 shots on the night. His seventh set a new Harvard record for most saves in a single season, breaking the record held by his predecessor, J.R. Prestifilippo.
“There is no doubt that Jonas is the MVP of this league,” Mazzoleni said. “That he has had to make so many saves, doesn’t say much for our defense, however.”
Dobrowolski did not fare as well for Yale, giving up five goals on the contest in a game he did not expect to start. Bulldog starter Dan Lombard suffered a punctured lung on Thursday and the seldom-used Dobrowolski — Lombard had the most minutes of any ECAC goaltender — was pressed into service at 11 a.m. Friday.
“Lombard is not available to us this weekend, that’s all I know,” said Taylor. “Hopefully, we’ll get him back for the playoffs. I don’t know much about punctured lungs.”
Turano opened the scoring for the Crimson at 4:30 of the first period and he was followed by strikes by assistant captain Chris Bala at 8:13 and a power-play goal at 12:12 by Dominic Moore on a deflection.
Luke Earl started the Eli comeback on the man advantage just over two minutes after Moore’s strike and Sauve notched his first goal on a breakaway with 1:39 left in the first period.
ECAC Rookie of the Year candidate Tim Pettit iced the game for Harvard with an empty netter at 19:04 of the third period.
With RPI’s 2-1 win over Cornell, the Crimson assumed sole possession of third place of the ECAC and can wrap up that spot with a win over Princeton on Saturday night. Third place guarantees that Harvard would avoid the Thursday night play-in game at Lake Placid, should the Crimson advance to that round.
“About a month ago, the only people who thought we would be in third place were our kids and the coaching staff,” Mazzoleni said. “They deserve all the credit in the world to battling towards that spot.”
That’s Bill Cleary hockey.