BURLINGTON, Vt. — Raise your hand if you thought at the beginning of the year that Vermont, a team picked to finish 10th and 11th in the ECACHL’s preseason polls — a team that didn’t win its first game last season until December — could earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s exactly what the Catamounts did at Gutterson Fieldhouse with a 2-2 tie against No. 11 Harvard Saturday.
ECACHL leading scorer Scott Mifsud netted both UVM goals on the power play as the tie put his team one point over the Big Green of Dartmouth, which needed to win — they did, 6-2 over Brown — and have the Crimson take care of business on the road.
“I’m just so proud of our guys,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “Harvard is one of the best teams in the country, and I thought we played just an inspired hockey game.
“The guys were excited about taking control of their own destiny, and they did the job tonight. I think they certainly deserve the week off,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be … well-needed.”
As it turns out, the tie helped Harvard as much as it did the Cats. The single point moved the Crimson into second and Colgate to third. All three, as well as Cleary Cup champion Cornell await second round matchups two weeks from now.
Hearing that Harvard would have been content with a tie, as well, prompted Sneddon to quip, “We could have just shook hands and walked away.
“But the best thing about the game is that both teams played to win,” he said. “At the timeout (late in overtime), we said, ‘We don’t sit back for anybody. We play to win.’”
If there was one aspect of last night’s last-second win that the UVM coaching staff was not particularly pleased with, it was the undisciplined penalties taken throughout — especially in the offensive zone. One such infraction in the early stages of the first period led to the first goal. After Torrey Mitchell just chipped the puck wide of the Crimson cage and goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, the ECACHL’s leading freshman scorer went to the box for tripping.
Harvard capitalized on the opportunity given it, as Charlie Johnson put the puck past Vermont goaltender Joe Fallon’s glove side from above the right circle. Noah Welch laid the puck in Johnson’s wheelhouse and the junior fired home his seventh of the year at 4:26. Jon Pelle got the other assist on the goal.
Fallon kept the Cats from going down by another later in the period by making two stops on Ryan Maki cutting to the net with 7:45 left.
Vermont got a power play of its own when Tom Cavanaugh was whistled off at 14:37. Scott Mifsud — the hero of the previous night — scored his 19th of the year tipping a Kenny Macaulay shot past Grumet-Morris to knot it at one. Torrey Mitchell also assisted on the goal at 15:06.
Harvard led in shots on goal 10-4 after the period.
In the second the Cats had considerably more jump in their stride and carried play for the majority of the period. Vermont had Grumet-Morris under siege, early in the period, and peppered him with 16 shots courtesy of three power plays. He showed why he is one of the top backstops in Division I.
He made a handful of terrific saves on attempts from prime scoring areas in the period to preserve the score. Grumet-Morris turned aside Joey Gasparini from the high slot, Chris Smart from directly in front and Mitchell at the post on the power play.
But the careless penalties persisted for UVM, and with Matt Syroczynski sitting for elbowing at 16:14, Harvard retook the lead on a rebound of a Dan Murphy shot just eight seconds later. Brendan Bernakevitch scored the Crimson’s second power play tally. Tom Walsh also assisted on the senior’s third goal of the year.
Johnson took a penalty at the end of the second period which gave Vermont fresh ice to operate with the man advantage and time to draw up a play in the locker room during intermission.
Harvard left Mifsud open in the slot 65 seconds into the third on the power play and the game was tied again. Jeff Corey found the senior, playing his final regular season game at the Gut, for his 20th goal. He was also assisted by Mitchell.
“It was a little disappointing they got the two goals on the power play,” said Crimson coach Ted Donato. “Of all the guys to leave open, [it was Mifsud] in the slot.”
The line of Mitchell centering Mifsud and Corey didn’t let up all weekend. Coming into action Saturday, not one was lower than 18th on the conference scoring charts.
“Those guys played awesome tonight,” praised Sneddon. “I thought they played a fantastic weekend, not only offensively, but defensively. The backchecking pressure that those guys put on all weekend … they led the way.”
Vermont again controlled play in the third after the goal but couldn’t push the game winner past Grumet-Morris, a Hobey Baker candidate like Mifsud.
Corey nearly duplicated the last second scene from Friday, as he held the puck on his stick with time winding down. Grumet-Morris made the save, though, and the game moved on to overtime.
There were no shots on goal in the extra session, Harvard attempted the only three, but none got to the net. Both teams played it safe getting the puck into and out of the zone along the boards and gladly took the tie.
“It’s just a tremendous accomplishment by our guys,” Sneddon said of getting the bye. ” The whole league’s tough, but if you look at the top six, we’ve got some good teams in the league this year. To be able to finish in the top four is such an improvement. You don’t know going into any given year. You don’ t know until the final weekend, where things are gonna shape out.”
Grumet-Morris made 25 saves while Fallon had 22.