SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — When Harvard went up 4-1 on Dartmouth in the second period of the ECACHL final, the Crimson knew the game was far from over. And when Harvard took penalty after penalty in the final minutes of the period, Dartmouth had every opportunity to get back into the game.
But unlike the teams’ last meeting, Harvard (24-6-3) never allowed Dartmouth (26-6-0) to narrow the gap, even though the Big Green had more than three minutes of 5-on-3 power plays at the end of the second period. The Crimson’s goals — three of which came on the power play and one shorthanded — proved to be the more than enough, especially as Crimson goalie Ali Boe stood on her head with 36 saves on 37 shots.
“Our goals gave us momentum but the way everybody was able to come together and kill off the 5-on-3s, I think that’s what really made the difference in the game because we were able to build on that,” said Harvard tri-captain Nicole Corriero, who was named the tournament MVP.
On the 5-on-3s, Dartmouth’s Olympic star Cherie Piper quarterbacked the power play, while her longtime rival and former youth teammate Corriero was at the tip of the Crimson triangle looking her eye-to-eye. Corriero’s presence and confidence set the tone for the rest of the penalty kill. Dartmouth had capitalized on 5-on-3s in key wins over Minnesota and Colgate earlier this season, but Harvard was not going to let anything come easily.
As the 5-on-3s continued, they became a war of attrition. All of the players started to look like they were moving in slow motion. That was fine for Harvard, who wanted its motions to be efficient. In the final minutes of the second period, Dartmouth was hard-pressed to get the puck to Boe at all, but Boe was there when her team needed her.
“I think that once I started to get a little more tired, I think I started playing a little better and being more efficient and making the right plays as opposed to trying to chase the other players around,” Corriero said. “Cherie’s got an awesome shot, she was labeling some of those and Boe came up really big.”
In addition to her penalty kill prowess, Corriero provided the finishing touches on the two power play goals just minutes apart that gave Harvard a 3-1 lead at the game’s halfway point. They were typical goals for Corriero, making something out of total chaos. Both came off of rebounds from Julie Chu shots, in the midst of bodies flying everywhere.
“They weren’t pretty, we were just trying to get the puck to the net, and drive to the net for rebounds,” Corriero said. “In both cases I happened to be in close and lift the puck over the goaltender. It was just a matter of bearing down a little and not sticking it back into her but lifting it up over her.”
“Nicole came out of nowhere and I don’t know how she gets it in,” said Chu. “Nicole out of anyone I play with has the most natural scoring touch. In practice Sarah Vaillancourt and I are standing there, she throws it to the net it goes in, and we’re like how? She’s hard-nosed, she gets herself in there. Half the time she scores but she gets knocked out right afterwards. We don’t always have to be pretty.”
Added Corriero: “I can’t make plays in front of the net if they’re not taking great shots from the point and not moving the puck around and getting their defense all scrambled. When Julie is quarterbacking the power play at the top of umbrella, she keeps everyone settled down and relaxed and keeps the puck from bouncing all over the place. It was a nice shot on net. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
The story of Harvard’s power play success was also the story of Dartmouth’s lapses.
“We had some breakdowns in a couple places that really hurt us,” said Dartmouth coach Mark Hudak. “Two of the power play goals were a result of us not executing individual responsibilities.”
While the Corriero and Chu combination was the driving force of the game-deciding pair, the rest of the game’s scoring came from more unlikely sources.
Kat Sweet scored the game’s first goal and her eighth of the year at 14:03 of the first period with the second power play unit, when she deflected in a feed from defenseman Jennifer Skinner through goalie Christine Capuano’s five-hole. She also scored the Crimson’s first goal with the second power play unit to lead off the 2004 NCAA final.
The other groundbreaking moment for Harvard was Jennifer Sifers’ short-handed goal at 11:08 that put the Crimson up 4-1. Applying pressure to the last player back on the power play, she stripped the puck free for a breakaway, and finished it in the air as Capuano fell back into the net and dislodged it.
“It was huge for Sifers,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “She’s a great penalty killer, she worked hard and kept her feet going. We haven’t scored a lot of shorthanded goals, but that was a very timely one today. Just like the first goal, our second power play unit scored, that was a huge lift for us. It takes a lot of pressure off the first unit when the second unit can deliver.”
Dartmouth had its best scoring chances and only goal from its third line. At 4:51 of the second period, Krista Dornfried battled through the last Crimson defender and centered the puck for a Nicole Ruta one-timer to tie the game.
“Our third line has done that a lot this year actually,” Hudak said. “They’ve done it at opportune times and helped give us a little bit of a boost.”
The boost was short-lived because of Corriero’s power play goals at 6:43 and 8:35 of the period.
In the final period, Dartmouth outshot the Crimson 12-7, but the Ali Boe show took over.
“I think Ali played a nice game,” Hudak said. “She did what she needed to do and stayed square on the puck. She did a nice job of not allowing us to have good second chances.”
“They have some bombs on their team, they’ll come over the line and fire it, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Chu said. “Sometimes she can’t see the puck right away until the last second, but she’ll control it and not give them a second-chance.”
The improved play of Boe has been a big part of Harvard’s 17-0-2 record since January. She says that’s just a reflection of the rest of the team.
“I think it’s just everyone’s working a lot harder together,” Boe said. “I play off their momentum during the game, and everyone’s really stepping it up defensively so it’s easy for me to stop the first shot, and I know they’re going to take care of the rest.”
With the defeat, Dartmouth still managed to host an NCAA quarterfinal. Harvard, meanwhile, put itself in position to host an NCAA quarterfinal — an outcome that seemed entirely unlikely when the team was 7-6-1.
“We’ve set some really high goals for ourselves to accomplish,” Corriero said. “At the end of December a lot of people wouldn’t have thought we’d be here right now as ECACHL regular season champions and postseason champions and Ivy champions.”