CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At 10:12 Saturday evening, Harvard’s collective hockey community finally exhaled.
Not because the Crimson had triumphed, but because perhaps the worst day in the school’s history of the sport had finally come to an end.
Hours after their heavily favored female counterparts had been upset by upstart Rensselaer, the Crimson men suffered a similarly ignominious defeat at the hands of regular-season doormat Brown. The triumphant Bears denied their Cambridge prey a single goal in a stunning two-game sweep, with goaltender Mike Clemente wearing the hero’s crown with 47 saves in the 2-0 series-clinching win and 86 total over the two nights.
Senior Eric Slais and junior Aaron Volpatti scored for Brown (5-21-5), while Ryan Carroll took another gut-wrenching loss despite 24 saves in net for Harvard (9-16-6).
“They really battled,” said dejected Harvard coach Ted Donato. “Made it tough for us in both games. Didn’t beat themselves, stayed out of the box, didn’t turn the puck over. They recognized that their goalie was seeing the puck very well, and he was incredible.”
Clemente’s consecutive clean sheets marked the first time Brown had accomplished the 120-minute blanking since the fall of 2002, and the first time in one weekend since 2001. The feat also ended Harvard’s 111-year intercollegiate run without enduring consecutive shutouts, and likewise put a stop to the Crimson’s streak of 10 straight wins in home playoff rounds.
“Couldn’t have happened at a better time,” laughed Brown coach Roger Grillo.
“The history part isn’t a huge deal for us,” he amended. “With the season that we’ve had, to win two games back-to-back, which we haven’t done all year, and to move on in the playoffs, to have another week of hockey, and the opportunity to get ourselves to Albany is the biggest thing right now.”
Brown didn’t allow for the same scoreless suspense as in Friday’s opener. First-line winger Slais beat one-on-one defense off the left-wing halfboards and bolted across the ice at Carroll. The 6’2″ veteran from the Show Me State showed Carroll a little something, slipping a crafty backhand through the five-hole for the game’s first goal.
“After the first shift we kinda sat down and looked at each other, and said ‘It’s gonna be a good night’,” said Slais of his hot first line. “We just felt it right away.”
It was only the eighth time all season that Brown had scored first, and they were 3-4-0 when doing so before Saturday. Freshman Bobby Farnham nearly doubled the light-scoring Bears’ production moments later, but he was denied on a slippery little breakaway of his own.
The Crimson were sure they had tied the game on a short-handed snipe in the 12th minute, as senior center Jimmy Fraser beat Clemente over the right shoulder from the right-wing circle. The puck appeared to clip the post, drawing a roar from the crowd and a flare of the goal light. The officials vehemently waved the goal off as soon as it rang Clemente’s iron, and whistled the play dead, as per procedure when the goal light flashes.
“I thought we got a little lucky at times, they hit the post a couple of times, but you know, I guess that’s part of the game; we had a couple good chances too that we didn’t capitalize on,” said Grillo. “Believe me, we’ve been on the tail end of a few of those things, so we could use a little luck.”
The first intermission arrived with a rather remarkable 1-0 score, even moreso considering Brown only led after 20 minutes one other time this year. The Crimson led 10-8 in shots, and each team took two minor penalties in the opening stanza. Recent history was not on Harvard’s side, as this year’s edition of the Crimson icers was 0-7-2 when trailing after one.
“For the first 10 minutes of the first period we were really good,” assessed Grillo. “We kind of set the pace and tempo of the game, and did some nice things. Then the second half of the first period I thought we started getting a little sloppy; we tried to do a little too much, and gave them too many quality scoring chances. Michael came up big, and the post came up big a couple times. I think that may have been him getting in their head a little bit, and them trying to pick their spots.”
Brown weathered Harvard’s momentum swing early in the second frame, but came back strong as the game hit halftime. Senior center Matt Vokes earned himself a quality chance by fighting off his mark at the blue line and following up his own slap shot with a high-percentage wrister. Winger Volpatti set Slais up nicely for a one-timer goal a few minutes later, but Slais couldn’t put solid lumber on the rubber.
Second-year rearguard Sean Connauton unloaded on a rolling puck from the point with four minutes left that deflected twice on its way to the net. Volpatti and Vokes were on the scene of Carroll’s fortunate stop, but were effectively battled off the rebound by the frantic Harvard defense.
The beleaguered hosts slouched off to their locker room down 1-0 after 40 minutes despite a 26-19 advantage in shots.
Brown capitalized on an early third-period power play to exacerbate the already desperate Crimson. With Alex Biega in the box for boarding, senior Ryan Garbutt barreled goalward along the line to Carroll’s right. His first shot bounded into a crowded crease, and both Vokes and Volpatti again had whacks at it. This time Volpatti connected, losing his helmet in the process and taking a solid shot to the bridge of the nose.
“It was kind of in my skates, and basically it just went off my skate into the goalie; I didn’t even know where the puck was, I was just pushing,” said Volpatti. “I was in front towards the post just pushing, and I saw it cross the line by just three or four inches, not too much.”
“‘Patti’s a warrior,” Slais chimed in. “End of the shift with no helmet on, and a big gash over his forehead.”
“Last night our fourth-line group was tremendous, and tonight our big-time players were big-time,” said Grillo.
Clemente had a slightly different take on the goals, joking, “We scored three goals this weekend and they were all garbage.”
Sophomore Michael del Mauro had a go at breaking Clemente’s shutout with 5:53 to play, but his doorstep rebound of classmate Joe Smith’s shot, one of the few offensive rebounds allowed by Brown in the series, amounted to nothing more than an offensive-zone faceoff as the goalkeeper slammed the door with the left pad and smothered the puck.
Brown gave their flummoxed hosts another chance to make a game of it when Connauton took a delay-of-game minor for deliberately knocking the net off its pegs. The Cantab crew was harassed into dump-and-chase rushes, which the Bears easily shipped right back down the river.
Affairs became increasingly testy after Donato lifted Carroll with 2:14 on the clock. Both teams sustained some questionable hits, and the visiting crowd was incensed with a Slais hooking call at 18:23. Harvard took its timeout, while Brown discussed how to best finish off its bulldog grip on the Crimson.
Harvard took a half-dozen shots with the two extra skaters, and the last 11 shots on goal of the game, but only one or two of the rips actually made it through to Clemente. The hosts were bafflingly patient with the puck, still wheeling it around the umbrella as the clock hit single-digits. They did ring Brown’s post once more, but the only puck that ultimately beat Brown’s stellar backstop in the series crossed the goal line a breath after the final horn.
“I thought (the shots) were under 30, for sure,” smiled Clemente afterward. “There might’ve been 47 shots, but there were probably 20 or 30 blocked shots from prime-time scoring areas. When a guy does something like that, it really pumps you up because they’ve got your back, I’ve got their back.”
“We have great, great kids,” said Grillo. “They worked really hard this year. Didn’t get a lot of success for their hard work, but now they’re getting rewarded.”
“It’s just huge,” said Slais. “We are so pumped, so excited. I’m a senior, ‘Patti’s a junior, and we haven’t had a series win, let alone a series sweep, since we’ve been here. Everyone’s just flying high right now.”
Harvard lost consecutive home games for only the second time all season, going 9-3-1 at Bright in the regular season. The program hadn’t missed the quarterfinals since 1981, numerous tournament variations ago, nor lost a home playoff series since 1995 to RPI.
Brown eliminated Harvard for the second time in 10 tries and won its first playoff series since 2005. The Bears will meet regular-season champion Yale in New Haven next weekend for another best-of-three set, with the victor advancing to the league semifinals in Albany on March 20. Yale won all three meetings with Brown this year, but the teams haven’t met since November.