BOSTON — Early in the second period, with Harvard leading by a goal, Crimson goalie Raphael Girard bundled a couple saves amid strong pressure by tenacious St. Lawrence. Following a smother of freshman Chris Martin’s attempted short-side stuff, Girard picked up the puck with his blocker hand, presented it to Saints top scorer Kyle Flanagan, and softly tossed it to him.
The taunt enraged SLU’s junior captain, but no matter what Flanagan or the Saints threw his way, Girard was up to the task, with 31 saves in Harvard’s 4-1 victory.
Junior pivot-man David Valek scored twice for the hosts, rookie defenseman Patrick McNally scored a goal with an assist, senior wing Eric Kroshus added a goal, and junior defender Danny Biega helped out with two assists as well. The win leapfrogged Harvard (9-8-11, 7-5-9 ECAC) over Clarkson (which lost at Dartmouth) in the race for fourth place and the league’s final first-round bye. Harvard killed five-of-six penalties in the win, despite failing on each of its own five advantages.
“We’re excited about the win,” said triumphant coach Ted Donato. “Our penalty killing and our goaltending really allowed us to have a chance to win. The third period and some of the first, we did a lot of good things, but I give a lot of credit to St. Lawrence, because the second period — I thought we got outplayed pretty good, but the difference was Raphael Girard.
“Tonight’s two points get us home ice. Tomorrow’s two points get us the bye.”
Sophomore blueliner Riley Austin scored the only goal of the game for St. Lawrence (13-17-3, 9-11-1), which dropped its second game in a row on its quest for a first-round home series. Classmate Matt Weninger made 22 saves, but couldn’t keep pace with Girard or his opportunistic teammates.
“We definitely had our scoring opportunities, and their goalie played very well,” assessed interim head coach Mike Hurlbut, “but it’s still frustrating. It’s not the way we’ve been playing the last three or four weeks. We’re a little frustrated, to not come out with a big effort after a loss last Saturday.”
The Crimson got off on the wrong foot almost immediately when captain and senior defenseman Ryan Grimshaw hit freshman Gunnar Hughes hard at center ice 1:12 into the contest. Referee Scott Whittemore found Grimshaw culpable in the most grievous fashion, dismissing the captain from the game and awarding the Saints a five-minute power play.
“I haven’t watched the video, but I know in general that anything that’s a hit to the head, we need to find a way to get out of hockey,” Donato mused. “If that’s what happened, and that’s what [Whittemore] felt happened, then that’s something that I support, and I support the referee’s decision on that play.”
Harvard kept SLU at bay for most of the penalty, but Austin beat Girard with three seconds remaining on the infraction to break the draw. The goal prompted the Crimson to suddenly find the throttle, and Valek struck back to even the score just 65 seconds later with a soft tip of a Danny Biega wrister.
“A five-minute power play the first or second shift [of the game] is tough: The guys aren’t really into it yet, and we didn’t have much of an effort,” said Hurlbut. “We were obviously looking to get some momentum from that, but then they had a great response with the goal.”
Kroshus found himself in the right place at the right time with 4:21 to go in the period when the Saints’ Austin couldn’t corral a puck running on net. He unintentionally tipped it just wide of startled Weninger’s right post, but Kroshus was there to tuck it right back in the net for the 2-1 lead.
The teams took to their locker rooms under the 2-1 score, even though the visitors outshot their hosts, 13-8, and converted the period’s only power-play goal.
After killing an early 17-second five-on-three, junior captain and first-line center Kyle Flanagan put a scare into the Crimson with a clean dinger off Girard’s right post. The Saints drew a power play on Valek’s boarding minor moments later, and winger Martin nearly put the sides square again as the penalty expired, only to be robbed by Girard’s last-ditch poke.
“Sometimes when things are going your way, you might feel pretty cocky,” Girard said about his performance — and his aforementioned jibe. “I don’t do that all the time, but sometimes when things are going your way, it rattles them even more, and they can’t find the back of the net, so it’s good for you.”
The score remained 2-1 through the second 20 minutes of hockey, but not for lack of opportunities. Harvard went 0-for-3 on the power play in the second stanza, and SLU 0-for-2. The Saints kept Girard jumping again in the second period with 14 shots (to Harvard’s eight), but skated into the intermission with still the lone conversion on 27 shots on goal.
“Second period, he made three or four really good reactionary saves,” Donato said of his netminder. “It was a big boost to us. I don’t think we felt we played all that well in the second period, but having a 2-1 lead going into the third was a nice benefit — one we haven’t had all that often.”
Valek buried his second of the night in the game’s 47th minute, sniping blocker-high on Weninger and putting the Crimson ahead by two.
Harvard hosts Clarkson with a first-round bye on the line tomorrow night: A win or tie secures a week off for the Crimson. St. Lawrence simultaneously finishes its regular season at Dartmouth, with which it is tied for the eighth seed and final home-ice berth.
“It’s been playoff hockey for us the last two or three weeks,” Hurlbut described. “Home ice is a key for us; at this stage of the year, we need to come out with a much better effort. I think these guys realize what’s on the line, and hopefully we’ll come back with a real good effort at Dartmouth.”