DURHAM, N.H. — Entering the final minutes of Sunday’s NCAA final, three times Minnesota had gone ahead and three times Harvard had come back. In such a tie game, one mistake and one bounce can make the difference. Harvard made the mistake, and Minnesota got the bounce.
Minnesota forward Natalie Darwitz, the tournament MVP, doesn’t really remember much about the game-winning goal with 1:08 left, but the first mention of the bounce she earned drew a big smile on her face. Kelly Stephens set up the goal by intercepting a Harvard breakout pass on the side boards and firing the puck into the slot.
“Stephens just threw it to the net and got a pretty nice bounce there right on to my stick,” said Darwitz, who matched A.J. Mleczko’s single-season point record of 114 with the goal and three assists today. “I don’t really remember what happened. I just remember it went in.”
Crimson goalie Ali Boe deflected the puck right to Darwitz and left her with a clear path to the net. It was a typical ending for Minnesota’s high-powered top line. The Gophers made a quick change at the end that paid off.
“I thought we matched them well down the stretch, but it was an unfortunate bounce, it caught us off guard, and they capitalized,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone. “But they’re good. They’ve been the best line in college hockey for two years. When the puck’s around the net, good things happen for them.”
The game was about as even as a championship game could be. Harvard outshot the Gophers 26-24 and netted two power play goals to one for the Gophers. Yet it was still Harvard’s third straight NCAA final defeat.
“Our kids played well, they never gave up,” Stone said. “They kept after them all the time. I thought that we had the momentum down the stretch of the game. When we pressured, we backed them up. Our goaltending was tremendous. It’s anything you could have asked for in a championship game.”
Harvard controlled the game early by drawing two penalties and taking nine of the first 10 shots, but Minnesota goalie Jody Horak saw every attempt. Boe wasn’t so lucky with 2:36 left in the period when Darwitz stripped the puck right in front of the Harvard net and pushed the puck under Ali Boe. Linemate Krissy Wendell knocked it out from under her into the net for the 1-0 Gopher lead.
Much like Harvard’s 2003 NCAA final defeat to Minnesota-Duluth or Harvard’s NCAA quarterfinal win over Mercyhurst, the Crimson needed just a minute after the intermission to come back. Crimson sophomore Jennifer Sifers, who had also scored a big goal in the ECACHL final, stormed down the left side boards and fired a long shot over Horak on the far side to tie the game at one just 46 seconds into the second period.
Midway through the second period, the teams traded power play goals. After several difficult saves by All-Tournament goaltender Ali Boe, Harvard still struggled to clear and Lyndsay Wall made the Crimson pay by firing a shot through traffic at 7:58.
Minnesota gained momentum and another penalty, but Harvard drew a penalty on Darwitz midway through the penalty kill. Sarah Vaillancourt cashed in shortly after Harvard went on the power play to tie the game 2-2 at 18:02. She was given room to operate as Minnesota was distracted by Julie Chu’s rush to the net without the puck.
Minnesota went ahead 3-2 with two minutes to go in the second period on an Ashley Albrecht shot from the point while Darwitz was causing trouble in front of the net.
That lead lasted until 13:54 of the third period. Harvard tri-captain Nicole Corriero drew a penalty on Wendell, and Caitlin Cahow netted the power play goal from the point through Horak’s five-hole while using a Minnesota defenseman as a screen. Both teams’ power plays were tough to stop on the big ice, and the aggressive penalty kills that the teams could use on smaller ice surfaces simply weren’t as viable.
Harvard was naturally frustrated to lose a third straight NCAA final, but the ending was much better than if the team had been watching from the stands. The Crimson’s 19-0-2 mark leading into the NCAA final after a 7-6-1 start made for a memorable season.
“I said in the locker room after the game that I have no regrets about this year,” said Corriero, who set the college hockey single-season record of 59 goals. “It was an incredible ride for me and the most fun I’ve had in my life playing hockey, and it’s because of each and every player in that locker room. I’m not going to let one game change that.”
The second straight NCAA title was a dream ending for the Minnesota seniors.
“That was a heck of a game,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “Nothing came easy for us. We just had some touching moments in the locker room with our seniors and staff. It’s fun to work with these guys.”
It was also a fitting farewell in the last collegiate game together for the high-powered Gopher top line of Wendell, Stephens and Darwitz.
“It’s an honor to play with these guys,” Wendell said. “Players like Natalie and Kelly don’t come along very often.”