CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Call it playing with a clean slate. Call it forgetting the past. You can call it whatever you like, but “dominating hockey” might be the best way to describe Harvard’s 4-1 win over Brown in game one of their first-round ECAC playoff series at Bright Hockey Center.
After sputtering to a 2-8-1 record in its final 11 regular-season games, the Crimson (12-14-4, 10-9-3 ECAC) regained its first-half form against the Bears (14-14-2, 10-10-2 ECAC), who had a six-game winning streak last month and boasted perhaps the nation’s top goaltender through that span in sophomore Yann Danis.
In other words, recent history meant little in the latest installment of college hockey’s oldest active rivalry.
When asked how long it had been since his team played so well, Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni paused a few seconds before he grinned and said, “It’s been a while. I can’t remember. We were hitting on all cylinders tonight.
“I thought we played extremely well,” Mazzoleni continued. “I thought we had tremendous balance on all four of our lines, that our defenseman played very assertively, and that we got very strong goaltending. We really executed our game plan to a ‘T.’”
The reaction was considerably different on the other side of the ice.
“I didn’t think we were very good at all tonight,” Brown coach Roger Grillo said. “I thought in the first period we were terrible. I was disappointed in our effort and disappointed in how hard we played. I thought Harvard did a nice job of taking it to us pretty good. They were all over us. It was that simple.
“The game was lost in the first 20 minutes, in my mind,” Grillo continued. “We thought it was very important coming up here tonight to establish ourselves early. We didn’t do that.”
Grillo refused to use his team’s youth as an excuse, even though the Bears skated just one player — captain Josh Barker — who was on the team during Brown’s last playoff season of 1998-99.
“We don’t look at it that way,” said Grillo, now 1-5 in the postseason at Brown. “The bottom line is that we just have to go out there and lay it on the line.”
And just as Grillo tried to impress upon his team the importance of a quick start, Mazzoleni stressed during the week how crucial it was for his team to take an early lead. For just the ninth time in 30 games this season, his team was able to do so.
Shortly after the two-minute mark, Crimson freshman center Tom Cavanagh — who grew up just a few miles away from Brown in Warwick, R.I. — capitalized on a turnover caused by linemate Brendan Bernakevitch at center ice. Cavanagh brought the puck into the Brown zone along the left-wing side and unleashed a low blast as he reached the right faceoff dot. The puck slipped through Danis’ legs to give Harvard a 1-0 lead just 2:16 into play.
“That was big,” Mazzoleni said. “We’ve played pretty well during our struggles, but we just haven’t finished very well. Jumping out in front gave us a big shot of confidence. I thought we continued to build off that.”
“We hadn’t [scored the first goal] in the past few games, and we lost the past few games,” said Cavanagh, who finished with three points on the evening to run his season total to 21. “So it was good to get the first one and get everything going.”
Seeing its first action after Bear center Pascal Denis went off for obstruction-interference at 17:09, the Crimson power play needed just eight seconds to give Harvard a 2-0 lead. On the draw following the penalty, Cavanagh worked the puck to classmate Noah Welch at the point. With Danis moving toward the right post, Welch beat him with a low slapper to his glove side with 2:43 to play in the period.
The Crimson’s relentless forecheck drastically limited the Bears’ attack zone time throughout the first frame, and Brown finished with just four shots on goal during the period.
The Bears, however, picked up their intensity in the more free-flowing second period, forcing Harvard freshman Dov Grumet-Morris to prove his mettle on several occasions. The Evanston, Ill., native was equal to the challenge, as he stopped Chris Legg on a breakaway with 13:10 to go in the period and kicked away Les Haggett’s bid less than a minute later.
All told, Grumet-Morris made 11 saves in the frame while Danis turned away 14 shots to keep his team within striking distance.
But given Harvard’s 8-0-0 mark when leading after two periods and the Bears’ 1-12-2 record when behind heading into the third, history said the 1,694 fans at Bright could have packed up and headed to the exits after 40 minutes of play.
Had they done so, they would have missed Harvard’s second power-play tally of the night.
Skating with both the man advantage and a fresh sheet of ice to begin the final frame, Cavanagh and Welch continued to catalyze the Crimson offense, working the puck back to sophomore winger Tim Pettit just above the right faceoff circle. Pettit set the puck on his stick and promptly smoked it through Danis’ legs to make it 3-0 just 27 seconds in. It was Pettit’s team-leading ninth power play tally of the season.
“We know [Pettit] has the best shot on the team, and I think other teams know that, as well,” Cavanagh said. “We just try to get it to him when he’s open.”
Harvard finished 2-for-3 on power-play opportunities, while the Bears were unsuccessful in four tries.
Brown did cut the deficit to two later in the period, as sophomore center Shane Mudryk notched his seventh marker of the year with 9:34 to play on an assist from junior winger Keith Kirley. Grumet-Morris, however, kept the Bears at bay while Crimson junior center Dominic Moore added an empty-netter with 19 seconds left for the final margin of victory.
Grumet-Morris — who has now started Harvard’s last four games after alternating with sophomore Will Crothers for much of the season — finished with 22 saves.
“We did a lot of preparation for this game throughout the week, watching many tapes and reading many scouting reports,” said Grumet-Morris. “We felt very prepared tonight, and that helps out a lot. And our defensive corps played very well. They really shut down the weak-side shots and kept shots to the perimeter.”
With the loss, Brown dropped to 0-5 in the ECAC playoffs since 1994. Danis, who was named to the All-Ivy League first team on Thursday after posting the best save percentage in ECAC play at .943, stopped 31 shots.
Crimson sophomore winger Dennis Packard, who scored two goals in Harvard’s 5-2 win over Brown on Dec. 8, missed the game with pneumonia. Crimson forward Aaron Kim is out indefinitely.