CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard didn’t play a full 60 minutes of hockey against Union Saturday at the Bright Hockey Center, but 59:40 proved to be enough as the Crimson edged the Dutchmen 3-2.
Unlike Friday night’s lapse against Rensselaer — which came in the final three minutes and cost Harvard two valuable points in the race for a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament — the Crimson’s only letdown against Union (11-14-5, 5-10-3 ECAC) came in the first minute of play.
The Dutchmen caught Harvard (10-13-2, 8-9-1) flat on its heels off the opening draw, controlling the puck and racing into the Crimson zone, peppering netminder Dov Grumet-Morris with shots at point-blank range. With five Union skaters swarming, Grumet-Morris allowed several rebounds on the doorstep, the last permitting Jonathan Poirier to poke the puck home 20 seconds into the game to give the Dutchmen a 1-0 lead.
“Yeah, we wanted to go after them,” said Union coach and former Harvard assistant Nate Leaman. “The last three games we lost the first period … I want to go out and I want to play Union hockey and Union hockey, to me, is going out and being aggressive and taking the pace to other teams, not sitting back and adjusting a lot.”
But the Crimson set the tone for the remainder of the period, responding to the early goal with a burst of energy that sent the Dutchmen reeling.
“You never want to let up a goal in the first minute of the game,” said Grumet-Morris, who recorded 17 saves on the evening. “But some of the things that you look for are the next three or four shifts after that. And I think right after that we attacked them and we went right after them and what we were able to do was establish a little bit of a presence and we were able to focus on that instead of the goal.”
With Harvard applying pressure the length of the ice, Tyler Kolarik lifted the puck in the neutral zone before absorbing a hit at the blue line that jarred the puck free and sent it drifting towards Kevin Du. Du reached out to control the puck, but a pair of Dutchmen defenders quickly collapsed on him to cut off his lane towards the net.
But Du stumbled through the narrow slot before regaining his footing just steps away from the net. A fake dropped goaltender Kris Mayotte to his knees and allowed Du to pull the puck back before whipping a backhand shot inside the near post for the equalizer 6:21 into the first period.
After knotting the score, the Crimson continued to bully Union deep inside its own zone, pinning the puck inside the blue line for most of the first period en route to 12 of its 34 shots on goal.
“I thought they made us lack the jump in the first period,” Leaman said. “I mean, they were stretching us out, they were getting behind us. And when you do that, the whole team kinda got on our heels.”
Harvard captain Kenny Smith — who was benched by coach Mark Mazzoleni against the Engineers the previous night — intercepted a botched Dutchmen clearance attempt following a faceoff and deftly avoided a pair of defenders to reach the middle of the ice just beyond the circles. Wasting little time, Smith ripped a shot in traffic over Mayotte’s right shoulder to give the Crimson a 2-1 lead at 11:54 in the first.
“The puck came back to me and the guys held up their men well,” Smith said. “And I just was able to get to the middle of the ice and skate one way and try to put it the other way on the goalie. I don’t think it was too hard of a shot but I think it caught him off guard going against the grain there.”
Less than a minute later, at 12:51, Harvard was back on the attack, as Dennis Packard received a pass from Brendan Bernakevitch and broke on goal. Using the same move Du had employed just minutes earlier, Packard dropped Mayotte to the ice, but lost control drawing the puck back in. Circling behind the net, Packard regained control and neatly tucked the puck inside the left post before Mayotte could regain his feet.
Union rallied with another early second-period burst of vigor, pinching forward to attack the Crimson offense before it could establish itself deep inside the Dutchmen zone, as it had during the entire first period.
Joel Beal drew the Dutchmen within one 2:35 into the second frame, intercepting a pass in the neutral zone and carrying the puck along the right boards before firing a shot to beat Grumet-Morris stick side.
“In the second period we had a lot of good chances,” Leaman said. “I think the key was that, you know, [Mayotte] made the saves. But when we would go down, it would seem like our chances would be good and, you know, Dov, I thought, made the saves he had to make.”
But that was as close as Union would come, as Harvard sealed off its own zone for the remainder of the contest, wearing down a Dutchmen squad coming off an overtime contest the night before at Brown, and featuring a scaled-down lineup.
“I kind of shortened the bench to go to three lines to try to combat their speed because they had so much speed against us by stretching us out,” Leaman said. “I think that hurt us in the end because we really got tired and we were having trouble getting to the loose pucks.”
That didn’t change when Union pulled its goaltender with the clock ticking down. The Dutchmen managed zero shots with an extra attacker, as the Crimson closed out the victory.
“I think that’s a tribute to our centerman and our wingers holding the line, and then our defensemen — I think Peter [Hafner] and Noah [Welch] cleared the puck twice each,” Grumet-Morris said. “But all in all, the effort was the very similar both nights. [Tonight] we were literally able to clamp down in the last five minutes of the game.”
Harvard next makes the treacherous journey through the North Country, while Union hosts Colgate and Cornell.