LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Cornell’s Sam Paolini had no idea what he started. With just over two minutes gone in the second period of his team’s ECAC semifinal game against Harvard, the sophomore winger snuck into the low slot and managed to tip home a shot from the point by teammate Doug Murray.
It was Paolini’s eighth goal of the season but by far the most important. His power-play tally at the 2:16 mark unleashed an offensive explosion for the Big Red — one which this team has not seen in quite some time. Cornell scored three goals in a span of 2:37 in that period and successfully knocked the air out of Harvard’s sails.
Cornell, which had managed only five goals in two games against Princeton in last week’s quarterfinal series, added two more tallies to earn a 5-2 win over the Crimson and a spot in Saturday’s Championship game.
“It was like being knocked in the head by a wooden board,” was how Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni described the three-goal scoring spurt. “It was like a shot in the head — bing, bing, bing — and it was 3-0.”
Up to that point, his team appeared poised for victory. The third-seeded Crimson was finding seams in the Cornell defense and had managed 12 quality scoring opportunities in the first period. There was no way that Mazzoleni could have expected the second period outburst by Cornell. Even Cornell coach Mike Schafer had trouble explaining what transpired in that 2:37 span.
“They came out in the second period and we did what we talked about all year,” said Schafer. “I think that it was our first three-goal lead of the year and I didn’t know if we knew what to do with it or not.”
Following Paolini’s tip-in by the left post, Cornell kept the momentum going by dumping the puck deep in the Harvard zone. After controlling play for nearly 40 seconds, Cornell’s David Francis broke free from the left-side boards and found daylight between the near post and the right pad of Harvard goaltender Oliver Jonas.
It didn’t stop there.
The Big Red, unaccustomed to such offensive prowess (the team averages just two goals a game and ranks 50th in the nation in scoring) continued to press, knowing that these opportunities don’t come around too often. Stephen Baby collected a pass from David Kozier by the Harvard blueline and stormed in on Jonas. Wasting no time, Baby rifled a shot past Jonas for his team’s third goal.
“The difference was that they were very opportunistic,” said Mazzoleni. “They capitalized on a couple of crucial breakdowns by us and on a few occasions they beat us to the net. But I thought that the biggest difference was [Matt] Underhill. He was spectacular.”
For a team that boasts one of the strongest defenses in the ECAC and arguably one of the best goaltenders in Underhill, the three-goal lead was all Cornell would need. Harvard managed to quell the Big Red fire following the Baby goal, but it was too little and too late.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the game for Harvard was that it was able to execute part of its game plan which was to pelt Underhill with shots.
The Crimson finished the game with a season-high 47 shots, but only two of those found their way into the back of the net.
“I was disappointed earlier this week when I found out that Underhill was not voted to the All-ECAC team,” said Schafer. “He was second in the country in goals against average, and he is one of the best goaltenders in the country.”
Harvard didn’t let Underhill exit the contest unscathed, however, as the Crimson got on the board at the 15:04 mark of the second period — more than 10 minutes after the Baby tally. Harvard senior Steve Moore cycled behind the Cornell net and found freshman linemate Tyler Kolarik by the right post. Kolarik quickly one-timed a shot past Underhill to bring his team within two goals at 3-1.
Six minutes into the final period, Cornell firmly closed the door on the Crimson. The Big Red’s fourth goal came after an extended period of time in which Harvard had been applying offensive pressure. Following several quality chances down low for the Crimson, the puck bounced out to the right faceoff circle. Sensing a scoring opportunity for his team, Harvard defenseman Dave McCulloch pinched in from the left point and let loose a powerful slapshot.
Unfortunately for the Crimson, the shot sailed high and wide and spun all the way around the boards where it was plucked by Shane Palahicky. Palahicky hit a streaking Francis who barreled into the Harvard zone and, with pinpoint accuracy, beat Jonas to left side.
“The power-play goal got us going. We got the cycle going deep and we fed off of that, and I was fortunate to find a hole,” said Francis. “We knew that it we were able to play our game — which is using the corners — we would be able to eliminate their speed and we would be OK.”
With less than three minutes remaining the game, Harvard played its final card and pulled Jonas from the net. Despite multiple shots from freshman Tim Pettit just inside the face-off circles, Harvard couldn’t beat Underhill. Finally, Cornell was able to tip the puck free out to Ben Wallace who leisurely sent the puck sailing down the ice into the Harvard net. The Wallace tally improved Cornell’s lead to 4-1.
Harvard netted its second goal of the game at the 18:14 mark, but the game was clearly over by that point. In the end, Cornell was able to take advantage of its chances, while Harvard was left to ponder the chances it let go by the wayside. Over the course of 60 minutes, the Crimson had two goals taken away in the first period and hit two posts.
“We were lucky that we had two goals called back in the first period,” said Schafer. “Thank God for video replay.”
The Crimson will play its final game of the season tomorrow afternoon in the ECAC consolation contest. The key losses next year for Harvard will no doubt be forwards Steve Moore, Chris Bala and goaltender Oliver Jonas.