MILWAUKEE — Faced with the loss of momentum from a potential game-turning play that didn’t go its way, Northern Michigan didn’t blink.
Their two-goal lead erased in the last 2 minutes, 50 seconds of the second period — gone completely with a goal that beat the horn by a matter of instants — the Wildcats collected themselves during the second intermission and won the game in the third period.
Senior forward Bryce Cockburn’s sixth goal of the season, just 47 seconds into the third period, provided the difference in the 15th-ranked Wildcats’ 3-2 victory over No. 12 Harvard on Sunday in the semifinals of the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown at the Bradley Center.
Wildcats coach Walt Kyle, in fact, characterized a goal by Harvard’s Tim Pettit that leveled the score at 2 in the final moments of the second period as good.
The logic isn’t so strange: The 15th-ranked Wildcats were going to be in some close games in the third period in the second half of the season, so why not start it off with a 20-minute game against the No. 12 team in the country?
“It’s tough to give up a goal like that, but if we’re going to win championships you know you have to win championships when it’s close and when it’s tight,” Kyle said. “In the end, it’s probably a real healthy thing because we’re playing for something, we’re playing against a good team, a nationally-ranked team. It’s important for us to discover if we can win it late, grind it out.”
Craig Kowalski made 36 saves, including one with his mask in the waning moments, for the Wildcats (10-6-1), who will play host Wisconsin for the title at 8:05 p.m. CST on Monday.
Harvard (9-5-1), which appeared to have the momentum going into the third period, will play Colgate in the consolation game at 5:05 p.m. CST.
Had Pettit’s slapshot from the right circle been only a rocket instead of a laser, Harvard wouldn’t have gone to the second intermission tied at 2. The difference between a highlight-reel goal and a shot that hit the net too late was that slight.
Pettit’s shot got under Kowalski’s blocker instants before the horn sounded to end the second period. The goal light never went on — the goal judge didn’t have time to react before the green light illuminated — and Kowalski tried to plead his case by waving his arms, but the goal stood.
Instant replay, which is allowed in regular-season tournaments, was not being used at the Showdown.
Northern Michigan may have been caught napping on the play, and the Crimson’s Ryan Lannon glanced a pass off the boards and up ice to Pettit to start the rush, which was designed on the bench, Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said.
“We were obviously frustrated, giving it up right at the end of the period,” said Cockburn, the Wildcats’ captain. “But we didn’t panic. We still had 20 minutes to play the game and it was still a tie game. Everyone was ready to go for the third, and it worked out pretty good for us.”
Cockburn’s rush up the middle off a turnover in the Harvard zone in the first minute of the third period caught backchecking Crimson forward Tyler Kolarik flatfooted.
Once he got in the clear, Cockburn took a pass from Dirk Southern and gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead.
“It just took a lot of starch out of us right at the beginning,” said Mazzoleni, a Green Bay, Wis., native who coached his first Division I game in his home state. “Forty-seven seconds and they’re back in the lead and really didn’t have to work very hard for it. That’s correctable and that’s what we have to do, correct those mistakes and move forward.
“We had the opportunity near the blue line to clear the puck and all of a sudden they kept it in … and they finished it. I give them credit for that.”
From there, Kowalski sealed the Wildcats’ place in the championship game. He stopped all 14 shots he faced in the third period, one of the last a hard wrist shot from Pettit that knocked his helmet off.
Kowalski, who said he hoped his team drew Wisconsin in the final so NMU could get some payback for a loss earlier this season in Madison, didn’t have to make many spectacular saves, but stopped eight power-play shots and kept the Crimson scoreless on five chances with the man advantage.
“I saw the puck well tonight,” said Kowalski, who improved to 9-5-1. “A couple screen shots, but other than that our [defense] and forwards did a good job of clearing guys out front and blocking shots and clearing out the rebounds.”
Said Kyle: “He’s been the backbone of our team all year. I think the guys come to expect that.”
The Wildcats built a two-goal lead after a scoreless first period with a power-play goal by Mike Stutzel and an unassisted goal from Dan Donnette off a Harvard turnover.
Harvard’s Tom Cavanagh cut the lead to one with 2:50 left in the second by getting a piece of a hopeful centering pass from behind the net by Noah Welch.
The Crimson, however, was left to lament a couple of defensive breakdowns that left goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris (26 saves) in precarious positions.
“Two of the three goals he gave up were just miscues by our defensemen,” Mazzoleni said. “They made poor decisions with the puck and panicked and turned and put it right on their tape. They just snapped it off. I don’t think as a goaltender, you’re expected to make that save.”