ALBANY, N.Y. — What will it take for Harvard to win in the NCAA tournament? For starters, playing a team other than Maine wouldn’t hurt.
Friday, the Black Bears scored four unanswered goals as the Crimson watched a 4-1 third-period lead disappear. Maine finished the comeback with a Greg Moore shot from behind the left faceoff circle at 15:50 to win in the East Regional semifinals, 5-4, at Pepsi Arena.
“We went through a pretty tough game a week ago, going to three overtimes,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I thought it would be pretty tough to top that, but we did.”
The loss was the third straight for Harvard in the first round of the NCAAs, two of which have come against the Black Bears.
“I thought we executed our game plan to a ‘T’ through two periods,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “We had them off their game. I thought our kids played their hearts out. It’s a tough way to lose.”
Mike Hamilton started Maine on the comeback trail by unleashing a laser of a snapshot at 3:55 of the third, from the high slot through traffic.
Twelve seconds later, Harvard put Maine on the power play, which became a 35-second two-man advantage after Rob Fried was whistled for slashing at 5:32. Harvard killed the two-man advantage, but whiffed on a rebound in front, sending the puck to Prestin Ryan in the high slot. He whistled it into the net at 6:14.
“You can’t stop a wave when it gets going,” Whitehead said.
Michel Leveille crested the Maine surge, tying the game at 4-4 by pulling up at the left point and waiting for traffic to develop in front of the net. He sent a soft shot on goal that ricocheted home at 12:47.
“We let our enthusiasm come out,” said Maine senior Colin Shields. “We went into the locker room between the second and third period and that was a good break for us. We came out more focused … When you combine our speed and enthusiasm it’s a deadly combination.”
The Crimson, which succeeded in ousting starting netminder Jimmy Howard from the Maine nets, couldn’t get one past Frank Doyle in the third period. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Dov Grumet-Morris, brilliant through two periods in stopping 31 of 32 shots, couldn’t keep it up through three. He surrendered four goals on 14 shots in the last period.
“It’s been a challenging year for us,” Mazzoleni said. “When we were struggling, a lot of people pointed their fingers at [Grumet-Morris]. He’s a battler. I thought at the beginning they came at us, he kept us right there. Unfortunately it didn’t finish the way he wanted. It wasn’t Dov’s fault.”
The power play was critical for both teams, as Harvard scored three times on four opportunities to take the 4-1 lead. The Crimson also did the improbable early, netting four goals through two periods on Howard, who entered the game with a 1.05 goals against average.
The Crimson elevated to that 4-1 lead in a similar fashion to Ryan’s goal for Maine. After killing a 1:13 two-man advantage, Maine seemed to have the remainder taken care of as well. But with two seconds remaining in the five-on-four, the puck caromed to Ryan Maki in the low slot.
Howard robbed Maki on the first chance, but the freshman followed his shot and put a second chance into the back of the net for the fourth Harvard goal.
Maki’s goal finished a Crimson surge that began with six minutes left in the first period. Outshot 11-5 at that point, Harvard got a couple of shots on net and then drew a power play. Freshman defenseman Dylan Reese scored his first collegiate goal with at 17:01, putting the puck over Howard’s glove.
ECAC tournament Most Outstanding Player Brendan Bernakevitch continued his strong play for the Crimson with 16.5 seconds left, putting in a rebound.
Dennis Packard continued the surge at 1:09 of the second period, opening up a 3-0 lead.
“It was a quiet locker room [going into the third period],” said Moore, the game’s hero. “Everyone knew what they had to do.”
The feverish pace set a new NCAA Regional record for the most shots on goal in a non-overtime game as Maine ended up outshooting Harvard 45-40. It also tied the record for largest comeback.
But the Crimson couldn’t execute in the third period, repeating a story that’s been told for the last three years. In 2002, Harvard won three straight overtime games in the ECAC championships, only to lose to Maine, 4-3 in overtime, at the regionals. Last year, Harvard lost in the finals of the ECAC championships, in overtime, and fell to Boston University in the first round.
This year, Harvard won the ECAC title in the last minute of regulation over Clarkson, only to lose again in the first round.
“You look at the great programs over the years, you don’t go to center stage without going through experiences,” Mazzoleni said. “I told those guys that years down the road when they see us win some games here that they’ll be very proud of it.”
Maine, meanwhile, continued its torrid play. The Black Bears have lost just twice in 2004, culminating with a Hockey East championship with a dramatic 2-1 triple-overtime victory over Massachusetts in the finals.
“We have a lot more weapons than we had last year,” Whitehead said. “[The play of Doyle] shows our depth at goaltending.”
Harvard sang the praises of Maine in defeat.
“They are a great team, very skilled offensively,” said Crimson captain Kenny Smith. “They were the most difficult team we played all year in terms of shutting them down defensively. They kept coming and coming.”
Maine will play the winner of the Wisconsin-Ohio State nightcap Saturday evening.