ALBANY, N.Y. — In the end, Harvard ended up exactly where everyone had predicted.
When Captain Kenny Smith’s game-winning goal with 38 seconds left in the contest eluded Clarkson’s Dustin Traylen, the preseason favorites were on their way to a 4-2 win and the 2004 ECAC Championship. It’s the Crimson’s second title in the last three seasons and seventh tournament championship in the program’s history.
Looking back at the struggles Harvard endured, it almost seems like the regular season was simply a rehearsal for the current 6-0-0 postseason run. The Crimson have now won seven straight and are 9-1-1 in their last 11; they were 9-13-2 before the streak.
“I think the challenges of this season has made us more hardened,” said Harvard head coach Mark Mazzoleni. “We don’t take things for granted and we pay attention to details.”
“It’s been a difficult season,” said Smith. “We had a lot of high expectations for ourselves and a lot of others had high expectations for us. We had some big wins and we had some disappointing losses, but we stuck together as a team and coaches and we knew that would make us better.
“In the last few weeks we learned how to play 60 full minutes and we’re a really good team right now.”
Even so, it was Clarkson scoring the first two goals in this contest — both tallies coming late in the first period.
The first scoring play began when the Knights’ Chris Blight streaked down the right side of the Harvard zone and unleashed a slap shot wide of the net. The puck kicked around the boards to Mac Faulkner, who quickly sent a cross-ice pass back over to Blight. The junior spun around and whipped the puck by an out-of-position Dov Grumet-Morris. The goal, at 16:39, was Blight’s team-best 19th tally.
Clarkson wasted little time in going up 2-0 when co-captain Tristan Lush scored his sixth of the year under a minute later. The Knights won a faceoff to the right of Grumet-Morris by pulling the puck back to defenseman Michael Grenzy. The rookie’s second attempt to get a shot through traffic was stopped by the Harvard netminder, who sticked the puck to his right and onto the stick of Lush. The senior then flipped a shot between the netminder and the near post.
If Clarkson thought the rest of the game would be a cakewalk, it received a rude awakening just 10 seconds into the second period.
Off the frame’s opening faceoff, Harvard’s Brendan Bernakevitch sprung Tom Cavanagh on a breakaway down the left side of the ice. The Crimson’s leading scorer faked Traylen to the ice and slipped the puck between the goalie’s legs for a power play goal that caught Clarkson by surprise.
“Between the first and second period,” explained Cavanagh, “we drew up a play off the faceoff. Bernakevitch was supposed to put it into the zone, but some guys got tied up and he just chipped it over to me.”
Harvard wasn’t done.
At the 4:50 mark, Harvard caught Knights’ defenseman Matt Curley pinching into the Crimson zone and Cavanagh, who was throwing up all of last night and into this morning because of a stomach bug, moved out on a two-on-one. He decided to keep the puck and wristed a beautiful shot by Traylen for his second tally of the game and 16th of the season.
“Obviously,” Clarkson head coach George Roll said, “Cavanagh was not the guy we wanted handling the puck on a 2-on-1. The defenseman moved in and the forward didn’t react.”
“I thought I’d just creep in,” said Cavanagh, “but their goal was pretty far back in the net and I saw a corner that I thought I could pick. I had a two-on-one with Tim Pettit in the first period and I tried to pass, so this time I was thinking shot more.”
It worked and the momentum was officially shifted to the Crimson.
“When they went up 2-0,” said Mazzoleni, “I think a lot of people thought it was over. Cavanagh really caught their attention and I thought it turned the complexion of the game.”
The paced slowed a bit from there and the score remained tied well into the third period with neither team applying much pressure.
But when Clarkson was whistled for icing late in the contest, it brought the puck deep into its zone for a critical faceoff. Bernakevitch, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, won the draw and the puck ended up on Smith’s stick where his wrist shot made the difference.
“That’s a play we’ve been doing for a few years,” commented Smith, “but nine out of ten times the puck goes back to Noah Welch. When the puck came onto my stick, I didn’t want to pass it up.”
“It hit the knob or shaft of my stick,” Traylen explained.
“It’s pretty devastating to get this close with the guys we have. It’s so heartbreaking.”
Dennis Packard added an empty-netter for the Crimson at 19:47 to seal the victory and the title that seemed so distant just a couple of months ago.
For Clarkson (18-18-5), the season should be considered a success, especially after last season’s coaching turmoil. The Knights made it much further than expected this season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the program.
“Last year,” said Clarkson co-captain Tristan Lush, “we basically hit rock-bottom. I give the credit to the coaches. They were the best guys for the job. It used to always be negative and now it’s always positive, especially over the last month. We showed what we could do.”
“I really have to take my hat off to Clarkson,” said Mazzoleni. “They came of age and competed hard. There’s no question, Clarkson is back.”
Harvard (18-14-3) moves onto the opening round of the NCAA tournament next weekend. The teams and seedings in each of the four regionals will be announced on Sunday.