ALBANY, N.Y. — Bust up your brackets, it’s underdog night at the ECAC semifinals.
Brendan Bernakevitch broke a 1-1 tie 33 seconds into the third period to give No. 6 Harvard a 2-1 win over No. 3 Dartmouth in the ECAC semifinals Friday night in front of 5,641 at Pepsi Arena. The victory puts the Crimson in the ECAC finals for the third year in a row, and it will face No. 9 Clarkson, who ousted the top seed in the tournament by the same score earlier in the day.
“In my five years at Harvard, this was by far the best Dartmouth team that we’ve played,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “This was a hotly contested match.”
The two teams engaged in a virtually even fight with Harvard counterpunching off the strong Dartmouth forwards rush. After each team picked up one goal in the second period, Harvard went ahead for good when Bernakevitch won the faceoff back to defenseman Ryan Lannon and went straight to the net. Lannon slid the puck over to Peter Hafner, who wristed a shot on goal and the junior center pounced on the rebound.
The goal was a vindication for the Bernakevitch line, whom Mazzoleni tried to match against the strong Big Green forwards of Hugh Jessiman, Mike Oullette and Lee Stempniak.
“The was the matchup that we wanted all night,” Mazzoleni said. “They can put out, in my opinion, the three best forwards in the league on one line. You have to be aware of them. You don’t take any offensive reads because they can turn the table on you in a hurry.”
Dartmouth’s best opportunity to tie the game back up came when it went on the power play with about 12 minutes left in the third. The Big Green kept feeding super-sniper Jessiman at the left point, and Harvard forwards held the box to block five shots on the penalty kill to preserve the 2-1 lead.
“Anytime you get a power play in the playoffs it’s pretty important because of the number of one goal games,” Stempniak said. “We had our chances, but the puck didn’t bounce our way. The puck bounced right onto their stick and it went into the net.”
Bernakevitch’s goal early in the third reversed a momentum swing that Stempniak gave Dartmouth with 41.8 seconds left in the second period. Corralling the puck at the blueline, Stempniak burst down the right wing and around Harvard defenseman Noah Welch and headed straight across the goal mouth. He switched to his backhand where he just put the puck inside the far post past the outstretched leg of Grumet-Morris.
The goal electrified what little crowd showed up at the Pepsi Arena for the prime time game, but the Dartmouth big guns couldn’t find another one. Grumet-Morris made 30 saves for the Crimson, while Dan Yacey stopped 31 shots for Dartmouth. Both teams were 0-for-2 on the power play.
“We played with a lot of jump, but the puck just didn’t go in the net for us,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet. “We backed them off for most of the night, and played a good, solid game. We tried to take the game to their defense.”
Aside from the two goals roughly a minute and a half and an intermission apart from each other, most of the substantive action came surprisingly from Harvard defenseman Dave McCulloch.
The Crimson had expected Dave McCulloch to make an impact in the game, but in the fashion he did in the first period, laying out Eric Przepiorka with a huge, clean open ice hit. Instead, he got the Crimson on the board, picking off a Dartmouth clearing attempt at the blueline and walking it down to the circle where he rifled the shot past goalie Dan Yacey at 11:40 of the second period.
The goal was just the fifth of the senior defenseman’s career.
“Coach asked me on the bench if I was trying to pick the corner. I was really trying the hit the net, [but] I told him I was trying to pick the corner,” McCulloch joked.
Harvard now moves on to face Clarkson in the finals tomorrow night. The two teams last met in 2002 ECAC semfinals when Cavanagh scored in overtime to eliminate the Golden Knights. Harvard went on to defeat Cornell that year in double overtime to win the championship. The Crimson returned to the ECAC finals last year, this time losing to the Big Red in sudden death.
This season, the two teams have perfectly split, going 1-1-1 against each other. Each team defeated the other in their home rink with Clarkson winning 3-0 in November at Bright, and the Crimson edging out Clarkson 2-1 on Feb. 20 at Cheel Arena. The two teams tied each other 3-3 in the consolation game of the Dunkin Donuts Coffee Pot tournament over Christmas break.
“We’ve played a lot of one goal games,” Mazzoleni said. “We have six seniors and six juniors. These are guys who have been there before. I don’t think that anything they see rattles them now.”
Dartmouth and Harvard have taken opposite paths in the final rounds of the ECAC tournament. The Big Green lost to the Crimson, 5-3, last year in the semifinals and are 2-5 over the past three years in either Albany or Lake Placid, never reaching the championship game.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t deliver the goods,” Gaudet said. “We turned over a lot of players on this roster and it’s a credit to Brian [Van Abel] and Lee [Stempniak] that they’ve brought a young team and played very well against a veteran team. I’m pleased with the effort.”
Dartmouth will play Colgate in the consolation game tomorrow at 5 p.m. The championship game is at 8 pm and can be seen on CSTV and Empire Sports Network.