SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Back in October, who ever imagined that Yale was capable of taking three-time defending ECACHL regular-season champ Harvard to overtime in the league semifinals?
Junior goalie Sarah Love did, and her 37-save performance in today’s semifinal was nearly was enough to get Yale more than that — a semifinal victory. The Bulldogs tied the game 1-1 with just 14 seconds left and had momentum going into overtime, but a critical bench error 11 minutes deep into the extra frame surrendered a power play that Harvard freshman Sarah Vaillancourt did not squander.
Unlike January’s 11-2 Harvard win, Love instantly closed most every opening that seemed to present itself to the Crimson (23-6-3). Yet Harvard kept the pressure on and it finally paid off with Vaillancourt’s second goal of the game, good for a 2-1 win over the Bulldogs (16-14-1).
“Throughout the game we were just trying to chip away, the key is not to get frustrated,” said Harvard tri-captain Julie Chu, who assisted on both goals. “You had a hot goalie and a good team in front of you. You’re not going to get the goals right away. It would be nice to let them in and just raise your hands, but that’s not how it is, especially at this point of the season.”
Yale’s aggressive penalty kill had disrupted Harvard’s power play in regulation, but in overtime, the Crimson operated at will. After some quick passing, Vaillancourt had time, space and an opening from the left faceoff circle. Her powerful — yet often wild — shot can wreak havoc on nets when it hits the mark, as it did on the 73rd minute game-winner.
“I wanted to be more aggressive — for some reasons we laid back and that wasn’t our game plan the whole game,” said Yale coach Hilary Witt. “We let them pass it around and you can’t let Harvard do that.”
The ending was tough to take for Yale captain Erin Duggan. A minute before the game-winner, she had been trying to come off the ice after an especially long shift in the middle of a possible Harvard odd-man rush. The Yale player jumped in early to get in on the play, and the too-many men signal soon followed.
“It was a tough way to lose especially since the kids worked so hard, but [the officials] made the right call,” Witt said.
The ending sullied a historic effort for Yale. Never before had the program won a playoff game before last weekend, and this team had as many chances in overtime as Harvard up until the game-winner.
Yale’s last-minute game-tying goal came as Duggan was left free to fire away from the left point, and Jenna Spring put a loose puck at the crease through Harvard goalie Ali Boe’s five-hole.
“We moved it quickly, that’s what we worked on all week long knowing Harvard’s going to be really aggressive on the penalty kill,” Witt said. “Sometimes our D had trouble with shots getting blocked and I thought Erin Duggan showed a lot of patience not shooting it right away. We got people in front of the goalie and that’s how you score. There aren’t as many pretty goals in this game as people like to think.”
While Yale was moving the puck quickly in the final minute, Harvard wasn’t as aggressive as usual.
“Our penalty kill is very attacking, and we don’t spend a lot of time practicing a passive penalty kill,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “And they did a nice job of setting some picks, and holding the puck long enough to draw someone to it, and we were just a little bit hesitant.”
In addition to the game-tying goal, Yale could also be proud of keeping the game scoreless for two periods. Harvard outshot Yale 10-3 in the first period and 9-4 in the second period, but neither team broke through. Love was her usual self. Boe made 17 saves on 18 shots for the day and adeptly handled the puck through a lot of chaos.
“I’m very impressed with how our kids responded on a day where a lot of things didn’t go well for us,” Stone said. “In the first period I thought we hit just about every shin pad we could in the rink.”
Finally at 8:13 of third period, Yale left the puck free at the corner of the crease after a dangerous Nicole Corriero drive. The effort by Corriero and Chu got the puck to Vaillancourt outside the crease with the angle for an easy finish and a 1-0 lead.
“Usually I have a bad habit to keep going instead of stopping in front of the net,” Vaillancourt said. “This time I did [stop] and Julie and Nicole worked hard to get the puck back in front, and I was standing there.”
Harvard will hope for a better start in tomorrow’s ECAC championship game against Dartmouth.
“We’ve got some really smart kids in our locker room and they know better than anybody that they can play better, keep it real simple and not force things,” Stone said. “I anticipate our team is going to come out flying tomorrow.”