DURHAM, N.H. — While Nicole Corriero has been the No. 1 goal-scoring threat all season for the Crimson, freshman Sarah Vaillancourt proved her finishing abilities as well in Friday’s NCAA semifinal against St. Lawrence.
Corriero scored the first Harvard goal and Vaillancourt added the next three in a 4-1 Crimson win that advanced Harvard (26-6-3) to the NCAA final for the third straight season. It was the second straight year St. Lawrence (27-8-5) had bowed out to Harvard in the semifinals.
Harvard netted three power play goals for the third straight game, this time on nine opportunities. St. Lawrence was just 1-for-10.
“They have a great top power play and they move the puck around well,” said St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan. “We didn’t execute well enough on the kills. We missed coverage a few times. I give them a ton of credit.”
Vaillancourt, with 21 goals and 41 assists this season, has been a better stick-handler than goal-scorer this season, but her finishing abilities have come on strong lately to complement Corriero, the sport’s all-time single-season goal-scoring leader. Vaillancourt also had both goals in Harvard’s 2-1 ECACHL semifinal win over Yale.
On the Crimson’s first goal 6:29 into the game, quick Crimson puck movement left Corriero wide open at the crease for an easy finish.
“There are just so many weapons on our power play, so I can see some other players might get more attention leaving me open for a split-second,” Corriero said.
Vaillancourt put Harvard up 2-0 at the 10-minute mark when she used a deflection to finish a give-and-go with defenseman Lindsay Weaver. Corriero also assisted on the play.
“If they take Nicole, I need to shoot on the net,” Vaillancourt said. “That’s what I did more today.”
Harvard outshot the Saints 10-1 early in the game, but St. Lawrence dominated the end of the first period. The Saints’ Chelsea Grills netted a power play goal off a Rebecca Russell rebound to narrow the deficit to 2-1.
St. Lawrence seemed to be building momentum, but a Rebecca Russell roughing penalty upon a collision with Harvard goalie Ali Boe put the Crimson on the power play again. Vaillancourt, who had stopped in front of the net in search of a rebound, found a long one of a Caitlin Cahow shot and finished it for a 3-1 lead at 8:21 of the second period.
Harvard never let St. Lawrence regain the same kind of momentum from then on. The Crimson outshot the Saints 40-17 for the game.
“There was a stretch where St. Lawrence was putting us back on our heels,” Corriero said. “That’s when we started to rally around each other and realize if they’re getting momentum a lot of it’s because we’re sitting back and letting them into our zone. We made the decision to really just get together, play sound defense and attack them on our forecheck.”
St. Lawrence dug a deeper hole by giving the Crimson a 5-on-3, which Vaillancourt converted for the hat trick. The 22-penalty game was frustrating for the Saints, who had played a nine-penalty game in a 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA quarterfinals.
“In the game last week, they let us play. Then we get here on this stage on the big ice surface and it’s completely different,” said St. Lawrence coach Paul Flanagan. “So I think the kids were a little confused with this dramatic change. You get to the point where you’re not sure how to play defense.”
On her third goal at 16:51 of the second period, Vaillancourt threaded a low shot through traffic.
“I couldn’t see where I was shooting, but I knew I wanted to shoot it low because there were a lot of my players there and I didn’t want to hurt them,” she said.
Harvard defensemen earned primary assists on all four Crimson goals. The result was all the more impressive considering that the Crimson played most of the game without top defenseman, senior Ashley Banfield. The Crimson senior sat out the game as a precaution and her status for the final Sunday has yet to be determined.
The final dagger for St. Lawrence came in the third period on the power play when a Chelsea Grills shot from the point deflected off Corriero’s foot, off the crossbar, off the right post and across the mouth of the net. It was initially called a goal, but upon further review the officials said there was inconclusive evidence it had gone in the net.
Goal reviews in the NCAA tournament had not been kind to Harvard in recent years. A Crimson goal was found to be whistled dead in double overtime of the 2003 NCAA final against Minnesota-Duluth. And the same kind of whistle call went against the Crimson on Minnesota’s game-winning goal to open the third period in the 2004 NCAA final.
“We’ve been on the other side of those kind of calls in this setting,” Stone said. “I just felt this might be our day.”
Now, after a 19-0-2 unbeaten streak, Harvard needs just one more day like this one to capture that elusive NCAA title.