CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A successful postseason run takes talent, timing and a bit of luck.
On Friday night, the Harvard Crimson (19-8-3) used all three to defeat the St. Lawrence Saints (17-18-2), 2-0, and take a one-game-to-none lead in their ECACHL quarterfinal series.
In an emotional, physical and sometimes nasty affair, Harvard’s Dov Grumet-Morris, the Hobey Baker candidate with the nation’s best save percentage (.952), turned aside all 33 shots to improve to 14-1-0 in his postseason career. He also tied Cornell’s David LeNeveu and Rensselaer’s Joel Laing for the ECACHL tournament record for shutouts in a career (two).
“They are a tough team to score against,” said SLU head coach Joe Marsh, “as their record and stats indicate. And they have the big guy in net. He’s had a fabulous year.
“We had some opportunities, but not second or third chances.”
For nearly the first ten minutes of the game it was easy to forget Grumet-Morris was even on the ice as the Crimson dominated play and held the Saints without a shot until the 8:38 mark. After that, Grumet-Morris was forced to make an additional 10 saves.
Both teams came out playing a more up-tempo and physical style than in their regular-season meeting last month. In that game, Harvard dominated from start to finish. That was not the case Friday.
The Crimson did have the first serious scoring opportunity just 2:57 in, when traffic in front of the St. Lawrence net pushed netminder Mike McKenna out of his crease. That’s when defenseman Dylan Reese picked up a loose puck behind the SLU net and centered it to senior Brendan Bernakevitch at the bottom of the right circle. His quick wrist shot toward a gaping net clanged off the right post.
Harvard appeared to have scored at the 9:55 mark when McKenna, on his stomach, swept a loose puck away from Crimson rookie Jon Pelle, but right onto the stick of Charlie Johnson. The Crimson junior’s shot squeezed through the pads of the netminder — who was on his knees by that point — but referee Dan Murphy didn’t see the puck cross the line and blew his whistle before the red light was turned on.
“[Murphy] said he lost sight of the puck,” explained Harvard head coach Ted Donato. “I didn’t see it that way.”
McKenna made a critical save just 27 seconds into the middle period when Bernakevitch came in on a breakaway. The goalie stood his ground against the on-rusher, forcing Bernakevitch to make the first move and allowing McKenna to make the save.
The Saints had their best scoring chance over 14 minutes later when SLU’s assist leader, John Zeiler, fed sophomore Max Taylor alone in the slot with a beautiful centering pass from the right circle. Taylor one-timed the puck, but Grumet-Morris came out of his net and stuffed the attempt.
“The save on Taylor was as good a save as you’re going to see,” said Donato.
Soon after, the game’s intensity spilled over into nastiness that Murphy had a tough time controlling. What was already a physical contest crossed the line into a dangerous situation with sticks and elbows up and Grumet-Morris getting run over on several occasions.
Harvard’s Ryan Lannon suffered the first blow. After helping set a physical tone on the blueline, he looked to replicate one of his big hits against SLU’s leading scorer T.J. Trevelyan. The junior was waiting for Lannon, however, and greeted him with an elbow to the chin that earned Trevelyan a five-minute major at 15:18.
The Crimson converted on the power play less than 90 seconds into the man-advantage when Johnson walked in from the right point to the right faceoff circle and wristed a shot through a screen and by McKenna’s glove for his eighth of the season.
“That goal went through about nine legs,” said Donato. “Charlie’s scored some big goals for us.
“I thought [the hit] was a cheap shot, so you like to make them pay for it.”
Emotions continued to boil over as time ticked down in the middle stanza.
At 18:51, Saints sophomore Kyle Rank was whistled for charging into Grumet-Morris, which prompted Harvard captain Noah Welch to retaliate and get called for roughing. Seconds later, as Murphy stood by the penalty boxes, a fan threw a full plastic soda bottle across the ice, landing just a few feet from the referee.
While security wrestled the fan away from the action, the tension in the Bright Hockey Center was palpable. And at 19:34 of the second period, things came to a head again as a Harvard defenseman pushed St. Lawrence’s Mark Wallmann into Grumet-Morris. A pileup ensued and both Wallmann and Bernakevitch were sent off the ice.
“I hate to see that,” said Marsh. “That’s the only thing that bothers me. There’s no way we would ever run the goaltender, especially not a guy like that. There’s no way we would ever do that.”
The period finally ended without further incident, but police did come down to ice level to help escort the officials down the runway.
The third period brought a sense of normality back to the game and, ironically, not one penalty was whistled in the frame. Clearly, players on both sides were reminded that they were in the midst of a one-goal playoff battle.
For the Saints, it was their best period. They controlled the puck deep in the Harvard zone and had constant pressure for about 13 minutes. At one point, Trevelyan raised his arms for what he thought was a certain goal, but Grumet-Morris stopped his wraparound at the last minute.
Then, at 13:12, the Crimson used a bit of timing and luck to pop an insurance goal and seal the victory.
Trevelyan picked up the puck as he skated behind his own goal to start the Saints out of the zone. Unfortunately for the forward, his defense failed to cover the Crimson forechecker, rookie Mike Taylor. Taylor skated around the net and poked the puck off Trevelyan’s stick, then quickly passed it to Pelle at the bottom of the left circle. The freshman made a quick move and backhanded the disc into the top of the far corner.
“It’s kinda funny,” said Taylor about the sequence of events leading to the goal. “My line was up next and Steve Mandes had been out there for a while. As soon as I jumped on the ice, they called for Charlie [Johnson]‘s line.
“I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I was out too far so I kept going.”
Interestingly, Pelle had a similar alibi.
“I wasn’t supposed to be out there,” he said. “Mandes’ line needed a new right wing so I came in late. I’m not going to complain about it.”
The Saints pulled McKenna for the final 1:42, but could not get on the board.
Overall, Marsh felt his club played well, but just ran into a tough situation.
“They are really solid off the puck,” explained the coach. “They bottle you up and attack at the same time.”
The Crimson, admittedly rusty in its first game in two weeks, ended the evening 1-for-6 on the power play, while the Saints were 0-for-4. McKenna posted 14 saves, many of the quality variety.
“McKenna played well,” Marsh said. “They are a puck control team and had good shots.”
The two teams lace ‘em up again Saturday night for Game 2 in their best-of-3 series with SLU looking to stave off elimination.
“They scored two good goals,” said Marsh. “We’ve been on the other end of it. It’s do-or-die now.”