Well, that just about does it for the relative calm before the storm.
Playing host to a pair of ECAC rivals this weekend, the Harvard men’s hockey team knocked off first-place Union, 4-1, Friday evening, then completed the sweep with a 2-1 win over Rensselaer on Saturday night, moving into second place in the conference standings and setting the stage for a six-game stretch that will feature at least five ranked opponents.
“We do have, I think, as difficult a schedule at the beginning of the season as anybody in the country, at least the East anyways,” Crimson coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “I was very happy to get the two wins this weekend, and as a team we’re looking forward.”
Harvard (7-3-1, 5-3-1 ECAC) doesn’t have to look very far. No. 11 Vermont (9-4-3, 4-0-2), unbeaten in its last 11, rolls into Cambridge on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. showdown at Bright Hockey Center.
HARVARD 2, RPI 1
Sure shots are important, but it’s the ones that find the back of the net that count.
The Crimson put the puck on net just 15 times, 11 fewer than the Engineers (7-8-2, 2-5-1), but clutch finishing complemented by Justin Tobe’s solid goaltending did the trick for Harvard.
Without senior forward Brendan Bernakevitch for the third straight game, the Crimson lacked some of its usual punch offensively, particularly on the power play. And, as was the case against Union the night before, Harvard struggled to establish its presence inside the RPI blue line early.
But after efficiently killing sophomore forward Steve Mandes’ penalty 5:19 in, then earning a power play of its own, the Crimson found its form. Despite a 5-on-4 unit markedly different from the one that has propelled the squad to the third-best conversion rate in the country, Harvard maintained its torrid scoring pace with a man advantage.
Sophomore center Kevin Du corralled the puck in the left corner, then fed classmate and blueliner Dylan Reese between the circles. Without a clear shot, Reese set up junior center Charlie Johnson to his left, whose one-timer tipped off a defender’s stick and over netminder Jordan Alford’s left shoulder at 8:53 to give the Crimson a 1-0 lead.
“We broke into the power play pretty easily there,” Johnson said. “[Reese] had a chance to shoot, [but] the guy was kinda in the lane there, so he fed it off to me. I just tried to get it away as quickly as possible.”
Despite finishing the period with just five shots on goal, Harvard kept the Engineers on the defensive, swarming around Alford’s net. With two minutes to play in the frame, sophomore forward Ryan Maki battled his way to a pair of rebounds in front for point-blank efforts, followed a minute later by a wrister from just outside the crease by freshman Mike Taylor. In all three instances, though, Alford was up to the task—he finished with 13 saves—allowing RPI to remain within striking distance.
The Crimson broke through with the eventual game-winner midway through the second period, though, trapping the Engineers down ice with a quick breakout from its defensive zone. Du connected with sophomore forward Ryan Maki as he streaked across the blue line, who in turn dashed into the RPI zone.
With defensemen Tom Walsh and Ryan Lannon skating one behind the other to his left, Maki faked a pass to Walsh out in front, then dumped the puck to Lannon. He in turn slipped past the remaining defender and guided his shot through Alford’s pads to give Harvard a 2-0 lead 9:27 into the second.
The Crimson’s subsequent chances were few and far between—with most resulting in an effort wide of the target—but Tobe saw to it that the lead held up.
Earning his second start in four games, the sophomore netminder surrendered one soft goal to RPI forward Nick Economakos at 15:36 in the second but was otherwise steady throughout.
Facing increasing pressure as the Engineers desperately struggled to knot the score in the final 10 minutes, Tobe was spectacular, turning aside all 13 shots he faced in the third period—he notched 25 saves overall—highlighted by a game-saving stop with just 90 seconds to play.
“I can’t say enough about the save he made at the end of the game. It was spectacular,” Donato said. “He gave us a chance to win, and he deserves a lot of credit.”
With Tobe perched on the right post, a cross-crease feed to forward Kirk MacDonald on the left doorstep appeared to have the netminder beaten. But, with left pad fully outstretched, Tobe kicked aside the effort to preserve the win.
“I saw the guy backdoor so I had a pretty quick reaction to it,” Tobe said. “It’s just another save you’ve got to make sometimes. It’ll make up for the bad goal in the second, I guess.”
HARVARD 4, UNION 1
In a throwback to last year’s lawless play, officials handed out just four penalties—three to the Crimson—a marked departure from the tightly whistled contests thus far this year. But Harvard’s offense, to date most-effective with a man advantage, seemed right at home at even-strength, battling its way to a decisive three-goal win over the conference-leading Dutchmen (7-7-1, 6-1-0).
Despite its average play throughout much of the opening period, Harvard struck first, courtesy of the brilliant puck movement and aggressive play around the net that have underpinned its success all season.
Forward Andrew Lederman took freshman Alex Meintel’s pass and circled behind goaltender Kris Mayotte. Once he cleared the right post, the senior whipped the puck out in front as assistant captain Tom Cavanagh barreled towards the crease. His one-timer whizzed past Mayotte on his glove side with 2:49 left to play in the frame.
“I think Tom Cavanagh has played outstanding for us all year,” Donato said. “I think in my mind he’s extremely underrated, which is fine. Hopefully, he’ll keep going on like he’s doing.”
Galvanized by Cavanagh’s tally, Harvard, which had been regularly beaten to the puck throughout the first period, seized the initiative, battering Union for the next 20 minutes.
The Crimson’s sophomore quartet spearheaded the turnaround, accounting for all six points racked up in the second frame.
Maki recorded the first blow 7:57 into the second period, beating Mayotte on his stick side from the right faceoff circle to extend the lead to two. Du and linemate Steve Mandes were each awarded assists on the score.
“[Our line] definitely had a great game,” Maki said. “It took us a few games to get the ball rolling. Last weekend we struggled offensively, but played well defensively. We just needed a little fire to get that going. We were working on it all game, and kinda broke it open.”
Less than nine minutes later, Maki, fed by Mandes, teed up defenseman Dylan Reese just outside the left faceoff circle, who banged home his third tally of the season at 16:44, increasing Harvard’s lead to three.
But Mayotte would hold fast the rest of the way, providing the Dutchmen with a glimmer of hope. Buzzing around Dov Grumet-Morris’ crease, Union finally punched through 2:57 into the third, when forward Sam Bowles scooped up linemate Scott Brady’s initial offering and flipped it home.
Squeezing off 15 shots in the period, the Dutchmen came close to pulling within one on several occasions, but Grumet-Morris, who notched 32 saves, and his defense were ultimately up to the task. Once the Crimson killed Dave MacDonald’s penalty, incurred with 7:59 to play, Union’s chances dwindled and the best scoring chances belonged to Harvard.
Cavanagh added an empty-netter with 70 seconds to play to establish the final margin of victory.
“We hit two posts,” Dutchmen coach Nate Leaman said. “They didn’t hit posts. They buried their chances, and we hit two posts.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.