ALBANY, N.Y. — Harvard-Cornell II. Since the season opened, the matchup for the ECAC championship seemed preordained. Both ranked teams. Cornell with a score to settle for last season’s painful double overtime defeat.
When Harvard entered the third period last night with a 4-1 lead, the semifinal only appeared to confirm what most already knew. Then, Dartmouth scored.
The Big Green potted two goals in the final minutes of the third period, the second on a penalty shot to turn a sure thing into anything but. Yet, Harvard, after missing five shots at an open net, finally landed one with 4.8 seconds to go to seal a 5-3 victory and a place in the ECAC final.
“We didn’t play consistently well,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “I’m sure [Cornell coach] Mike Shaefer will tell you this as well, people wanted to see Harvard-Cornell [in the final], but we had to get past Brown and Dartmouth, who were definitely in the top four of our league. We may have sat on the lead too much tonight.”
ECAC Rookie of the Year Hugh Jessiman got the ball rolling, jamming a rebound home at the side of the net at 13:26 of the third period. Dartmouth really put Harvard back on its heels from that point. Mazzoleni called a futile timeout at 15:35 to temper the Big Green’s momentum.
The tension reached a crescendo when Crimson defenseman Dave McCulloch stumbled on some horrible Pepsi Arena ice at the blue line, which sprung Mike Murray on a breakaway. Harvard defenseman Kenny Smith hustled but could not quite catch up, hauling Murrary down and the referee wasted no time pointing towards center ice.
Harvard goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris had already stopped one penalty shot this year, and came out to challenge Murray. However, Murray patiently went to his backhand and held on until Morris’ pad slightly rose off the ice, and the senior winger found the gap at 16:09 to make it a one-goal game.
“I was nervous-excited,” said Murray of the penalty shot. “I knew he was an aggressive goalie, but I also knew the ice was bad so I didn’t know if I should deke or shoot. But the puck laid flat on my stick so I took it to the backhand. I got lucky and found a hole.”
Unfortunately for the Big Green, it could not find another hole.
“We had great opportunities even before it became a close game,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet. “We needed a couple of breaks and we worked hard to get the breaks we got. … [But] we had to keep going back to the same guys. At the end, we didn’t have the energy to finish the job.”
Before the late-game theatrics, Harvard looked like the defending ECAC champions, scoring two goals in the first and two in the second, and allowing only the one goal by Kent Gillings.
McCulloch scored his first goal of the season to open the offense at 3:23 of the first period. Freshman Charlie Johnson, who has really come on strong lately, made it 2-0 off a nice feed by captain Dominic Moore at 10:57.
Gillings beat Grumet-Morris through the five hole at 1:37, but Harvard quickly resumed command of the game, outskating and outhitting the Big Green. Crimson sparkplug Tim Pettit, as he has done all season, pinpointed the top left corner of the net on the power play to give Harvard widen the lead back to 3-1 lead at 2:48 of the second. The goal was Pettit’s 17th of the season and he now has 44 points
Brendan Bernakevitch increased the Crimson’s advantage at 7:59 of the second, roofing a shot from the lower left circle, also on the power play. Gaudet pulled goaltender Nick Boucher after Bernakevitch’s goal to change the momentum and he succeeded.
Boucher’s replacement, sophomore Dan Yacey stopped all 11 shots he faced. Boucher denied Harvard on 12-of-16. Grumet-Morris finished the game with 32 stops.
After surviving the scare, Harvard’s thoughts quickly turned towards the impending match-up with Cornell, which beat Harvard twice, including most recently, a 4-3 win at Bright Hockey Center. At that game, Cornell jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead, but Harvard crawled back in it only to fall short in the end.
“It gives us confidence that we played well for two periods,” Moore said. “We also learned that there is no margin for error against. … We have to do what it takes.”
Cornell, the ECAC regular season champions, essentially clinched the division crown with its win in Cambridge back in February.
“They are our league champions and they beat us twice in the regular season,” Mazzoleni said. “I guarantee you, we’ll play hard. They’re deserving of their ranking.”
The championship game is set for 7PM from the Pepsi Arena Saturday night. It can be seen live on the YES Network (DirecTV channel 622).