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College Hockey:
Higgs tallies late goal to bring RPI into tie with Harvard

— Some ties feel as though they nonetheless have a winner and a loser.

Friday’s record-setting draw between Harvard and Rensselaer, however, left a somewhat empty feeling on both benches.

Sophomore Brock Higgs swept in an extra-attacker goal with 63 seconds remaining in regulation, pulling RPI (7-19-3, 4-10-3 ECAC Hockey) even with its hosts despite outplaying the Crimson (7-7-10, 6-4-8) for large portions of the contest.

Junior C.J. Lee scored a goal and added an assist and classmate Bryce Merriam stopped 29 of 31 shots to salvage the point for the Engineers.

“Coaches are very seldom happy. You’re angry after losses and you want to replicate the wins,” mused RPI coach Seth Appert. “Our process is pretty good, and it’s been good for about five or six weeks, so I like our process, I like our mindset, I like how we’re playing, [but] we’ve got things that we’ve got to keep getting better at. Every day, we have to come to the rink with the mentality that we’re not a finished product, and we’re not good enough yet. If we can keep coming with that mentality, then come March, we might just be a heck of a tough team to play against.

“I thought it was a really good hockey game; really good. I thought both teams played hard, both teams executed their style of play at least fairly effectively and I thought both teams were physical and intense.”

Juniors Alex Fallstrom and Luke Greiner scored for the hosts, who set a new league record for ties in a season (eight) and tied the Division I national mark (10, now shared with 2002-03 Minnesota State, ’08-09 Colorado College and ’10-11 Western Michigan). Sophomore goaltender Raphael Girard saved 27 shots in only his fifth career start.

“I think we got pretty much what we deserved,” sighed Harvard coach Ted Donato. “Both teams worked real hard, it wasn’t really a well-executed game, but both teams worked hard and battled. Both goaltenders played well. I think there’ve been plenty of times this year that we’ve felt like we deserved better. Tonight, I think we got what we deserved.”

Harvard came out heated, testing Merriam early and forcing the Engineers to match pace in the face of consistent pressure. RPI’s biggest test of the period came five minutes before the horn when in the course of 20 seconds, Merriam lost his goal stick, defenseman Luke Curadi broke his twig and Harvard pelted the exhausted and under-armed Engineers for a solid minute of offensive zone possession. Curadi dove into a pad-stack slide to deny Harvard a dangerous shot on goal and the visitors finally cleared and made a frantic five-man change. That ultimately allowed Lee to break the draw and seize momentum for the Engineers in a goal-mouth scramble.

“That was a good shift defensively,” Appert said of RPI’s wounded stand. “We’re getting better of not panicking all the time and having composure when another team is making plays against you. The other team’s going to make a push [and] we’ve learned that lesson too many times this year, but you’re not going to out-play a team for 60 minutes. There’s going to be times they push, and that was one of those times, and I thought we had good composure to not run around too much. Curadi had a huge blocked shot.”

The lead didn’t last long though, as Fallstrom found enough time and space to poke a goal-line rebound past Merriam’s outstretched foot two minutes later. The first-line winger was the star of the stanza, tallying four of Harvard’s seven shots. The goal was the Swede’s fourth in five games and second since returning from a two-week injury.

Engineers rookie Zach Schroeder had the first great look of the second period, sinking into an inexplicable soft spot just above Girard’s crease and taking a feed that caught the goalie way out of position. The winger whipped a wrister high toward a wide-open corner of the net, but missed high as Girard flailed at the bid.

With six and a half minutes remaining in the period, RPI rookie Matt Neal had an even emptier net and the puck on his stick when Girard whipped an ill-advised pass right to him. The ‘keeper will owe a dinner or two to defenseman Patrick McNally, who made a sliding kick-save to deny Neal the gimme putt. Schroeder and classmate Jacob Laliberte created yet another golden look at a gaping goal with a minute to go, but the puck wouldn’t settle for the latter on the right post.

The Crimson thus escaped the second phase of the game tied at one. Though Harvard held an 18-14 edge in shots through 40 minutes (and an 11-7 advantage in the second period), the home team seemed indisputably out-played and out-chanced.

“A lot of those chances, even in overtime, were our young kids,” Appert conceded. “Schroeder had three or four unbelievable looks tonight and he just missed. Good shots, but he just missed. Laliberte had two that he just missed on. I thought Girard played good in net for them, so you’ve got to give your opponent credit. We’re not a prolific offensive team right now. We’re a team that’s scrapping to score three and that’s our goal – to get to three every game and work our tails off to keep them to two or less. For the most part, we executed that tonight.”

The third period began as a much more balanced affair, but Rensselaer was not without its chances, including a Ryan Haggerty bar-banger from 15 feet out a few minutes into the frame. Then Harvard left wing Eric Kroshus plucked the puck off a cherry stick as the game approached the ten-minute mark and patiently awaited onrushing Greiner for the easy two-on-one strike.

Appert called his timeout with 1:56 to go in regulation and traded Merriam for an extra skater after the break. The gambit paid off 53 seconds of possession later as Higgs found a slippery puck amidst a thicket of legs on Girard’s doorstep. The pivot-man popped it home, ultimately sending the game to extra time 1:03 later.

“Earlier in the year, we’d find a way to lose that,” said Appert. “We’d be playing good in the third, they’d score that goal, and we’d go away and we’d give up another one, or we’d just fade away. I liked our resolve, that we stayed with it and kept battling and found a way to get a point.”

“Obviously, we’re disappointed. With the lead, with just a little over a minute left, we had the puck in full control and we end up icing the puck,” Donato said. “Just indicative, pretty much, of what we saw all night. Just not a lot of poise with the puck, not great execution.”

RPI concludes its weekend road swing with a Saturday night soiree at Dartmouth. Harvard plays ECAC Hockey’s final non-conference game of the year on Monday as it takes on Northeastern in the Beanpot consolation game.

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