CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard couldn’t have picked a better way to go into the Beanpot.
After a 19-day exam break, the Crimson never trailed in Friday night’s 3-1 win over Brown before 2,230 at Bright Hockey Center, but had to battle the Bears to the wire, only coming up for air after Tom Cavanagh’s empty-netter with 37 seconds to go.
“I liked this game,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni, whose team improved to 13-6-1 overall (12-3-0 ECAC) and moved two points ahead of Cornell at the top of the league. “It was a hard-fought, competitive game. I was really pleased with the way we came out and played.”
“Give Harvard credit,” said Brown coach Roger Grillo, as the Bears dropped to 9-9-2 overall, 7-6-1 in the ECAC. “I thought they played hard, and I thought we played tentative. We didn’t battle as hard as we had to battle.”
Harvard enters next week’s Beanpot following a win for the first time since 1999.
“Sure is a lot better than last year,” smiled Harvard goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, referring to the Crimson’s 0-2 trip to Cornell and Colgate that preceded last year’s Beanpot disappointment. “It felt like we were 0-4 going into the Beanpot that time.”
Harvard has a much different outlook heading into Monday’s 5 p.m. semifinal with Boston University, thanks in large part to the way in which its three marquee players came through against the Bears.
Captain Dominic Moore made the biggest impact early, nearly scoring the game’s first goal on a rush to the net midway through the first period, a play that was disallowed by referee Dan Murphy.
Moore also joined with standout defenseman Noah Welch to key two big penalty kills early in the period, before setting up Welch’s power-play goal at 15:33 that beat an uncharacteristically out-of-position Yann Danis low to his glove side.
After the Bears tied it 1:12 into the second period when Brent Robinson tomahawked a rebound from Paul Esdale past Grumet-Morris, it was Harvard junior Tim Pettit’s chance to shine.
Less than a minute after Robinson’s goal, Brendan Bernakevitch hit Pettit with a nifty off-the-boards pass in neutral ice, springing Pettit alone along the right wing.
After storming into the zone, Pettit squared himself to the cage and unleashed a trademark slapshot from the top of the circle, beating Danis with the eventual game winner.
“That’s a momentum-changer,” Mazzoleni said. “Anytime you’re able to counter that, especially when you have a one-goal lead and they nail you, to come back after that is huge. We didn’t give them a chance to generate offense off that.
“And that was just a classic Timmy Pettit goal. He just blew it through him. You guys have seen him play enough. He just rips the puck. He’s got a hammer.”
At that point, the Crimson shifted its focus to defense — and with good reason. Going into the game, Harvard was 11-0-0 when scoring first, 9-0-0 when leading after one period, and 12-0-0 when leading after two periods.
And Welch — the Crimson’s third key player in the game — was a big reason the win column of each of those categories improved by one by the end.
When defensemen Kenny Smith and Dave McCulloch went to the box at 6:41 of the second, Brown had a full two minutes with which to tie the game — or perhaps take the lead.
But Welch made sure that didn’t happen, staying on the ice for the full duration of the penalty, even spending a few hairy seconds wedged in the net behind Grumet-Morris, who was outstanding in his own right with nine saves during the power play.
“Noah’s a special player,” Mazzoleni said. “When you have a player like that, you have to play him. He logs a lot of ice time for us because of the way we match him up against other teams’ top lines.”
“He’s the centerpiece of our defense,” Grumet-Morris said of Welch. “He was out there for 1:45 or two minutes of that penalty kill, but what you don’t always see is that he’s always on our power play, and he’s out there two-thirds of the time on 5-on-5, too.”
Grillo pointed to Harvard’s ability to kill off the 5-on-3 as a key to the game.
“Our shots were all coming from the top, and we weren’t creating enough traffic in front,” he said. “Their goaltender was seeing the puck, which allowed him to make some of the saves he made.”
On the other end, Grillo’s goaltender was typically outstanding. After setting a record for saves by a Harvard opponent (66) in last year’s playoffs, Danis stopped another 49 on Friday to keep his team within striking distance throughout.
“I thought Yann was tremendous,” Grillo said. “He was excellent. He was on top of his game and made some big, big saves.”
Brown is idle Saturday and resumes play with a Feb. 7-8 trip to Union and Rensselaer.