CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For almost 55 minutes, the outcome seemed obvious: Harvard would win — both the game and the series — and Vermont would head back to the Green Mountain State.
Instead, the Catamounts mounted a late surge, pulling goaltender Travis Russell with four minutes to go and taking advantage of thoughtless Crimson penalties to nearly tie the game.
Harvard held a 3-0 lead on the strength of a pair of goals from forward Brendan Bernakevitch after the second intermission, and a 4-1 edge with just over five minutes to go. But Bernakevitch took an ill-advised hooking penalty at 15:45 and defenseman Peter Hafner joined him in the box 45 seconds later for cross-checking.
Trailing by three goals, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon elected to pull Russell in favor of the extra skater when the Bernakevitch penalty was called, and the resulting Hafner penalty worked to create a six-on-three situation.
“That was a little weird … it was a six-on-three — I think I’ve only seen that one other time in my career,” Crimson captain Kenny Smith said. “We battled hard; I know they got two goals there, but those were some difficult circumstances to be in, and we played really well through that.”
Harvard did indeed play hard through the final whistle, but things became decidedly uncomfortable for the fans of the Crimson when Vermont settled the puck in the Harvard zone with six attackers skating around a trio of defenders. It was all but inevitable that Vermont would mark the board, and forward Scott Mifsud did the honors with his second goal of the game at 17:11.
With one penalty thus erased and Russell still on the pine, the Catamounts had a 4-2 scoreboard deficit but a six-on-four edge in skaters. Setting up again in the Harvard end, Vermont moved the puck around until Catamount captain Jamie Sifers settled the puck in the high slot and fired on net, beating Harvard goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris five-hole.
So, a game that looked like a blowout in the making and a sure series sweep turned out to be a nail-biter with just 2:20 left on the clock and Harvard trying to maintain a 4-3 lead.
“Vermont made a late comeback, and you have to expect that out of any team in the playoffs,” Grumet-Morris said.
“Give them credit,” Mazzoleni agreed. “They made the plays but when it got down to five-on-five, we had the upper hand for the weekend.”
For the last 2:20, Vermont tried its best to keep five-on-five hockey from happening, putting Russell in net for the post-goal faceoff and pulling him as soon as the puck was in the Harvard end.
But the Cats were unable to capitalize six-on-five, and the Crimson’s swift-skating forward Tom Cavanagh found assistant captain Rob Fried between the circles in the Vermont end, and Fried found the back of the (empty) net at 19:09.
Fried’s goal was the nail in the coffin, and Harvard went on to win 5-3 and sweep the first-round series.
“We were beat by a stronger team tonight,” Sneddon said. “I thought the guys came out in the final 20 and gave it everything they had.”
“Harvard played outstanding — hats off to ‘em,” he added. “They’re a very strong, physical team; they played well defensively, really played well in all aspects of the game.
“I think they’re going to be a tough team to play in the next round.”
That will be the challenge Brown faces next weekend. The ECAC quarterfinals start next weekend for Harvard when it travels down I-95 to Meehan Auditorium and a showdown with Brown.