WORCESTER, Mass. — Having posted three consecutive sudden-death overtime victories in single-elimination competition over the past two weeks, it appeared to be fate that Harvard took Maine to its fourth straight extra-session match in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But the magic that carried the Cardiac Crimson from a meager 2-8-1 record in the stretch run of its regular season to its first ECAC Championship since 1994 just could not last forever.
Barely two minutes into the overtime period, Black Bears’ rookie winger John Ronan broke in on Crimson freshman goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris in a two-on-one and beat Grumet-Morris clean with a top shelf shot, giving Maine a 4-3 win and an NCAA quarterfinal berth against Hockey East nemesis Boston University.
“We just moved the puck well in transition,” Ronan said. “[Paul] Falco made a nice play to get me the puck, [Ben] Murphy was driving hard to the net. I let it fly to see if Murphy could get a rebound, but it went in.”
The circumstances surrounding the Black Bears’ game-winning goal are a testament to their depth. It is no secret that the Crimson lacks the depth to produce four solid offensive lines, which is why Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni hedged his bets and kept his fourth line on the bench during most of game.
However, Maine Coach Tim Whitehead used the opposite strategy. Whitehead continuously used four lines, and was greatly rewarded when his rookie line produced the goal that sealed the deal for the Black Bears.
“These are 20-minute overtimes,” Whitehead said. “Harvard can go a long time, which was part of the decision to put the freshmen out. The second reason was that they just looked pretty sharp tonight.”
Even more ironic, it was Ronan who served Maine’s two bench minors after being whistled twice for too many men.
“Maine is great on transitions,” said Harvard captain Pete Capouch.
Depth aside, the Crimson surprisingly made a great match for the explosive Maine squad, despite its .500 overall record, which is precisely the reason Harvard advanced once more to an extra period. In fact, at times during the first period of the East Regional matchup, it appeared as if the Crimson had the upper hand.
Once again, Harvard struck first at about the halfway point of the first period to go up, 1-0. Rookie center Tom Cavanagh won the draw, and Tim Pettit snatched the puck off the faceoff and launched a shot from the left circle past veteran Maine netminder Mike Morrison.
Though the Black Bears failed to pot the puck on the transition throughout the first period, it was not for lack of trying. Grumet-Morris practically stood on his head all night and stopped the majority of odd-man rushes against the Crimson, including a pair of spectacular saves early in the first period.
“We have found a major-league collegiate hockey goaltender,” Mazzoleni said. “He was the big difference maker. He definitely has room to improve his game, but he has the will and desire to do so.”
Only four minutes into the game, Bears’ senior center Martin Kariya sent a pass to linemate Niko Dimitrakos, but Grumet-Morris managed to stone the winger, who at that point was looking for his 20th goal of the season. Morris repeated his acrobatics again at 6:35 when junior blueliner Michael Schutte slid the puck to Kariya on another two-on-one rush, and made a diving save to protect the net.
Maine was stymied by Grumet-Morris until gaining its second power play. After Tom Reimann was stoned on the doorstep, his rebound slid out to Dimitrakos, who slammed it home to knot the score at 10:27 of the first period.
The Crimson avoided falling behind 2-1 early in the middle period when an official noticed that Maine winger Chris Heisten had invaded Grumet-Morris’ space just moments before a Black Bears’ blueliner potted a hard shot from the point.
This sequence became even more huge when the Crimson converted a goal of their own just a minute later, when sophomore defenseman Dave McCulloch took a slapshot from the point that appeared to be deflected past Morrison off of a Maine defender, putting Harvard ahead 2-1.
The Crimson managed to control the flow of the game until the second half of the second period, when Maine posted two goals in three minutes to take the lead for the first time.
At 12:08 Heisten rifled a shot past Grumet-Morris that he thought he had gloved, but had missed by only a second.
And at 14:22, a defensive lapse allowed Black Bears junior Robert Liscak to dig the puck out of the boards and fire a pass across the goal mouth to Schutte, who one-timed the puck past Grumet-Morris from the crease to put Maine up 3-2.
The Black Bears turned the jets on in the final period, but a whistle for too many men at 4:26 gave the Crimson its second man-advantage and first power-play goal of the night. Pettit to get around the defense and move toward the net, but lost the handle. Cavanaugh was there to pick up the loose pick and put a wrist shot in short side corner to tie it, 3-3.
Harvard battled Maine for almost another 20 minutes of hockey before succumbing to Ronan’s goal shortly into overtime.
A crowd of 10,000 strong, the largest showing ever for a first-day regional event, witnessed a Maine win that extends the Black Bears’ record to 24-10-7, including 8-1-2 in its last 11 games, The Crimson fall back to .500, finshing the season 15-15-4.
Tomorrow night’s meeting with BU will be the fifth for Maine this season. The Black Bears are 2-1-1 against their rivals this year.
“Both teams know each other, so there won’t be any secrets,” Whitehead said. “You can drop the puck and may the best team win.”