Witt’s 27-save shutout leads Northeastern past Harvard in Beanpot semifinal

Northeastern’s John Stevens (left) and Harvard’s Kyle Criscuolo hit the ice in Monday’s Beanpot semifinal (photo: Melissa Wade).

BOSTON — The appropriate metaphor for Harvard’s season (and its recent fortunes in the Beanpot) may be the Greek myth of King Sisyphus, condemned to perpetually pushing a boulder uphill.

Falling behind early in games had become a nasty habit for Harvard, but things were looking up entering Monday night.

Beanpot 2014

Semifinals: Feb. 3

No. 11 Northeastern 6, Harvard 0 | Does Northeastern finally have the stuff of Beanpot champions?

No. 2 Boston College 3, Boston University 1 | Boston College embraces Beanpot pressure; Boston University lives a nightmare

Feb. 10

Third place: Harvard 6, Boston University 2

Championship: Boston College 4, Northeastern 1 | Once again, Boston College finds another gear to extend Beanpot stranglehold | For Northeastern, more than a quarter-century of close calls but no Beanpot titles

After a win on Friday and a spate of close games against top ECAC teams – a comeback tie versus Quinnipiac and one-goal losses to Cornell and Union – it seemed as if the Crimson (6-12-3) was ready to make waves in Monday’s Beanpot semifinal against No. 11 Northeastern (16-8-3).

Then the boulder came racing back down the hill.

Six different Northeastern skaters scored goals as the Huskies jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead en route to a 6-0 rout over the Crimson at TD Garden.

“They outplayed us all over the ice,” Harvard coach Ted Donato lamented after the game, “and outcoached us, for that matter.”

It’s the third time in the last four seasons (and fourth in the last six) that the Huskies will be in the title game. Harvard has been trapped in consolation game purgatory for the better part of the last two decades – for 15 of the last 16 years, Harvard has been relegated to the early game on the second Monday.

More often than not, Harvard has been playing from behind this season. Including tonight, opponents have scored first in 11 of Harvard’s 21 games, but when trailing at any point in a game, Harvard has one victory on the season.

Tonight was no different.

“It’s disappointing that we came out flat here tonight because I think we played the last few games pretty well,” said Harvard captain Dan Ford.

Northeastern’s forecheck was relentless early on, using quick puck rotation to find the usual faces in shooting lanes.

And more often than not, those targets were wide-open.

Six different skaters scored Northeastern’s six goals, with five of the six scorers entering the day carrying double-digit point totals.

The Huskies opened up the account 5:57 into the game with freshman Dalen Hedges, who peeled off the corner boards to fire a wrister through a screen, beating Raphael Girard (21 saves) up high for his eighth goal of the year.

Hedges and his freshman colleagues proceeded to continue their NCAA-leading pace, with a total of two goals and six assists in the win.

Then again, this freshman class has been at it all year, leading the nation in scoring with (after tonight) 31 goals and 75 assists.

The first of six assists came on a one-touch pass from John Stevens to Kevin Roy on the power play at 12:08, with Roy one-timing the puck past Girard to make it 2-0.

[youtube_sc url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UO8qAg6sMo]

“There was a focus” that had been lacking in the past,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said. “I thought our guys were ready to go from that opening faceoff.”

With an extended layoff entering the game, Madigan’s team, especially his freshmen, had ample opportunities to let minds wander, but freshman Mike Szmatula credited the coaches for keeping the team on an even keel.

“To a certain extent, it’s hard not to think about [the Beanpot],” Szmatula said. “[But] the coaches did a good job of keeping our heads in the right spot. We’re going to approach it the same way for next Monday.”

Instead of backing off after that opening burst, the Huskies kept that focus and went for the jugular, with sophomore transfer Torin Snyderman redirecting a Szmatula feed for a goal 31 ticks into the second period, followed up by a Braden Pimm tic-tac-toe goal less than five minutes later.

The rout was on.

Despite Northeastern piling on the goals, the defensive effort wasn’t without its challenges.

Late in the opening period, Huskies’ captain Josh Manson targeted Harvard freshman Alexander Kerfoot with a high elbow, warranting a major penalty call and a game misconduct.

“It was a big concern – he’s our captain [and] losing him that early hurt us,” Madigan said. “We came in down a defenseman, so all of a sudden, you’re down to five defensemen, including one [Jarrett Fennell] who hasn’t played a lot.”

Madigan’s coaching staff resorted to double and triple-shifting some personnel, leaning heavily on freshman Matt Benning.

“It was almost like youth hockey – stay out on the ice until we tell you to come off,” Madigan quipped.

The defense looked none the worse for wear, allowing Clay Witt to play his part, making 27 saves and picking up his fourth shutout of the season.

Ironically, the last shutout in a Beanpot also came from Northeastern over Harvard in a semifinal three years ago.

The Huskies next turn their attention to Hockey East play on Friday versus Massachusetts, while Harvard will look to regroup in ECAC action against Dartmouth.