ALBANY, N.Y. — To the surprise of no one, Cornell and Harvard battled long into the New York night for the ECAC championship.
And to the surprise of no one, it was Sam Paolini who won it.
Paolini, the proverbial Crimson-killer, ripped the game-winning slapshot from the left faceoff dot at 1:23 of overtime to give Cornell a 3-2 win and its first ECAC title since 1997 before 8,296 at Pepsi Arena.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Paolini, who has eight of his 36 career goals — nearly a quarter of his scoring — against Harvard. “There’s no way of explaining it. I was telling Coach [Mike Schafer] that I wish I could score more against teams that aren’t Harvard. But they’re our big rival. Who better to score your points against?”
“Maybe I should tell people that every team we play is Harvard,” quipped Schafer, who won his third ECAC title (along with 1996 and 1997) as Cornell coach and gave his alma mater its ECAC record 10th overall. “It’s really a Cinderella story for Sam. He pretty much talked his way onto the hockey team as a freshman. But I told him that if he improved, we’d keep him on our hockey team.”
If they wouldn’t have, things might’ve turned out differently Saturday night. But as it was, Paolini was there to break out of the Cornell zone after Crimson forwards Brett Nowak and Dennis Packard nearly ended the game themselves with point-blank scoring chances.
Paolini worked around Harvard defenseman Kenny Smith in the neutral zone and then swept along the left wing toward Harvard goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris on a 2-on-1.
“Their guy went back toward the net,” Paolini said. “So I shot it as hard as I could and it went over his glove.
“I’m still elated. It feels like a dream. All my teammates just jumped on top of me. It didn’t feel real. It didn’t hit me that we had finally won the ECAC. We worked so hard to get here, and the way we did it was great.”
The way they did it drove their faithful fans from Ithaca into hysterics, to be sure. Cornell led 1-0 for much of the game but trailed, 2-1, with less than a minute to play, thanks to Harvard wing Tyler Kolarik, who scored the game-winner to beat the Big Red in last year’s championship game and appeared to have done the same on his redirect of Brett Nowak’s with 3:46 to go in regulation.
Hockey scribes in the press box immediately began pounding out their stories about Kolarik’s repeat heroics and his Return from the Gimp after missing all or part of the Crimson’s last five games with two different injuries.
“I felt a little rusty in the first period, and had some trouble with my shoulder,” said Kolarik, who scored a goal for the first time in more than a month but for the 14th time this season. “My teammates kept me going. They gave me a lot of confidence out there.”
The perfect ending for Harvard, though, wasn’t meant to be. Like last season’s epic, this game was destined for overtime.
“When they scored that goal, a lot of the guys on the bench said we knew we’d get it back,” said Cornell captain Stephen Bby.
They did. On an offensive-zone face off created when Nowak’s bid at an empty Cornell net bounced inches wide on the choppy Pepsi Arena ice, Big Red center Ryan Vesce won the draw cleanly to Cornell defenseman Mark McRae.
The Big Red net empty behind him, McRae settled it on his stick, crept into the high slot, and ripped a shot low to the glove side of Grumet-Morris. It eluded his outstretched leg pad and tied the game with 32.3 seconds left in regulation time.
“I definitely had a chance on that tying goal,” said Grumet-Morris, who finished with 30 saves. “It went off the post and in.”
It was Grumet-Morris’ first mistake in more than 57 minutes. The only blemish before that came just 1:53 into the game, when Paolini redirected Bby’s shot from the point, the Big Red’s first shot of the game, past him.
It marked the third straight Cornell-Harvard game — all Big Red victories — to start with a Cornell goal within the first two minutes. Cornell’s defense dominated the rest of the period. Harvard attempted 23 shots, but 10 were off-target because of and six were blocked. Cornell goalie David LeNeveu, who finished with 25 saves, gobbled up the other six.
The Crimson, though, slowly found its skating legs. It nearly tied the game in the second period — twice — only to have both goals disallowed. At 3:30 of the period, Brendan Bernakevitch came into the Cornell zone on a 2-on-2 with Tim Pettit, moved outside of Cornell defenseman Charlie Cook, and appeared to put his second goal of the tournament through LeNeveu’s five-hole. But after reviewing the play on replay for several minutes, referee Scott Hansen ruled that the net had come off its moorings before the puck crossed the line.
Later in the period, LeNeveu was able to draw a whistle on Kenny Turano’s tip from the doorstep before Charlie Johnson jumped in on his left post batted the puck into the net.
“It’s tough,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni of the disallowed goals. “You’re not going to question the official’s call. On the first one, you know that if the replay isn’t conclusive, you have to go with what the official ruled on the ice. And the other one was a goal-mouth scramble, and you have to protect the goalie in that situation. He’s an excellent official — best in the league.”
Harvard had an 11-5 shot advantage in the second, but one began to wonder if LeNeveu, who broke another of Ken Dryden’s records with 177:14 of shutout play in the ECAC tournament and took home Most Valuable Player honors, would be able to tie the NCAA record for single-season shutouts with a blanking on the ECAC’s grandest stage.
Dominic Moore thought not.
Moore, the Harvard captain who was a one-man offense while Cornell suffocated the rest of the Crimson earlier in the game, was finally rewarded for his efforts at 8:04 of the third.
With the Crimson forechecking, McRae gained possession to the left of LeNeveu, but Moore swept in from behind the net, picked McRae’s pocket, and skated out to the slot to wrist his team-leading 23rd goal into the twine, just beyond the reach of LeNeveu’s glove.
It was the type of goal that captains usually score to help their teams win championships. On this night, though, it wasn’t meant to be.
“This team remembered what happened last year against Harvard, and we carried it with us all off-season in the weight room, and all this year,” Schafer said. “We carried that will and determination for 365 days. I couldn’t be more proud.”
All-tournament selections included Moore, Bernakevitch, Bby, Grumet-Morris, Cornell defensemen Doug Murray and Travis Bell, and Brown goaltender Yann Danis.