ALBANY, N.Y.—It came full circle here last night.
Same championship game. Same end of the ice. Same time remaining.
Just one year later. And so very different.
Almost one year to the day the ECAC championship slipped through the skates of Harvard’s icemen on a draw play, here they were again at Pepsi Arena, lining up with about 30 seconds remaining and the league title at stake.
But this time, there was no disappointment. Only euphoria.
Kenny Smith, the Crimson captain benched twice during the regular season, wristed in a clean faceoff win by Brendan Bernakevitch just under the crossbar, delivering Harvard’s seventh ECAC title with a pulsating, come-from-behind 4-2 win over Clarkson.
“Last year hurt so much,” Smith remembered. “But there is no better feeling than this.”
Harvard, 9-1-1 in its last 11 games, will play in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, the program’s longest such streak since reaching five straight from 1985-1989. The pairings will be announced this afternoon at 2:30 on ESPN2. The Crimson (18-14-3) will likely play Boston College or Maine in the first round, in either the Northeast (Manchester, N.H.) or East (Albany) regional.
All of this—the ECAC title, an NCAA berth, success in general—seemed such a distant possibility a month ago, with Harvard performing well below preseason expectations at 9-13-2.
But this team shoved all that into the past when the ECAC tournament began, by sweeping Vermont and Brown, then squeezing out a 2-1 semifinal victory over Dartmouth before claiming a second Whitelaw Trophy in three years for the first time in school history.
Fitting that it came here in Albany, where almost exactly six months ago, the Crimson was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite at ECAC media day, before stumbling to a sixth-place finish.
It was a disappointing regular season in every respect. The only thing that could rectify it belonged to Harvard by the end of the night.
“These guys deserve a championship,” Smith said, smiling, as his teammates filed off the ice. “We didn’t live up to our expectations, but we kept working. We knew things would go our way.
“We stuck together. Now we get the Cup.”
But just like the Crimson’s season, the ultimate goal seemed unreachable for awhile.
Harvard played a tentative first period—it was outshot 10-6—and fell behind when Clarkson winger Chris Blight took a cross-ice feed from Mac Faulkner and beat Dov Grumet-Morris five-hole with 3:21 remaining in the period.
That alone wasn’t cause for much concern on the Harvard side. After all, the Crimson was 4-2 in the ECAC tournament over the last four years when the opponent scored first, including last weekend’s series-clincher at Brown.
But before Harvard could settle itself down, the Golden Knights struck again.
Michael Grenzy sent in a point shot that Grumet-Morris saved routinely but made the mistake of turning aside to his right. There, Tristan Lush warded off Crimson defender Dylan Reese, pounced on the loose puck and whipped it in for a 2-0 lead.
Bad, bad news for Harvard. Only once in 19 postseason games--Game 2 at Brown last weekend--had the team's seniors rallied from a two-goal deficit to win.
And only four times did the Crimson rally from a deficit of any kind to win.
Was there any doubt on the Harvard bench? “Yeah,” coach Mark Mazzoleni later admitted with a smile.
But then came a focused between-periods talk—and the Tom Cavanagh Show. It lasted less than five minutes. But that was all it took to dazzle the 6,489 on hand.
Just 10 seconds after Tim Pettit won the second-period faceoff, Cavanagh—who had been awake vomiting through the night before—took a feed from Bernakevitch, cut across the grain and backhanded in his fifth power-play goal of the season.
Clarkson 2, Cavanagh 1.
“He’s a superstar,” Smith said.
Less than five minutes later, David McCulloch blocked a shot in the Harvard zone, freeing Cavanagh and Charlie Johnson on a 2-on-1. Cavanagh held it until he reached the circles, then ripped his team-leading 16th goal past Dustin Traylen’s glove hand.
Clarkson 2, Cavanagh 2.
Whole new game.
“Don’t call him Cavy anymore. He’s Mr. Playoffs,” smiled classmate Noah Welch. “You know, Michael Jordan played his best games when he was sick.”
Said Mazzoleni: “That changed the complexion of the game.”
It absolutely did. Harvard outshot the ninth-seeded Golden Knights, 19-6, over the final two periods, but it took Smith’s late strike for the Crimson to finally foil Clarkson’s bid to become the lowest seed to win the Whitelaw.
Senior Dennis Packard scored an empty-netter with 12.7 seconds remaining to ensure that his senior class would be the first in Harvard history to graduate with two ECAC titles.
“This,” Smith marveled, “is perfect.”
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.