ALBANY, N.Y.—The sting of this one won’t go away for awhile. Not a chance.
How could everything go so perfectly right, then so terribly wrong, so quickly? If you’re a Red Sox fan, the best way to describe this was Game 7 On Ice. Early in the third period, the Harvard men’s hockey team was cruising. It had a three-goal lead. It had already scored a season-high three power-play goals. Its goaltender was playing the game of his life.
Then it all fell apart in a slow, agonizing death. Maine cut it to two, then one, then tied it. Then came the guillotine. With 4:10 left, Greg Moore beat Dov Grumet-Morris from atop the left circle for a 5-4 Black Bears win that tied the largest comeback in an NCAA Regional game.
The combined shots on goal (46 for Maine, 40 for Harvard) set a record for an NCAA Regional game. This was a great, classic college ice hockey game by any measure.
It also ranks among the most heartbreaking defeats in Harvard hockey history.
"I don’t think anything you say puts the right words to the feelings we have right now," said captain Kenny Smith, one of six seniors in the lineup—nine in all—who watched their collegiate careers melt in a 20-minute nightmare.
The Crimson received goals from Dylan Reese, Brendan Bernakevitch, Dennis Packard and Ryan Maki but saw its seven-game win streak—its longest in 11 seasons—snapped to finish the year 18-15-3.
At least everyone can take solace in this: There is no one deserving of the damning finger-point. There is no goat. There is no Grady. "It just kind of happened," Grumet-Morris said.
This was a case of the nation’s No. 1-ranked team playing like the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, even if it was for only one period. And the Crimson was almost brilliant enough for 40 minutes to win.
Harvard had leads of 3-0 (early in the second) and 4-1 (as late as 3:54 of the third). At one point, the Crimson was 3-4 on the power play and, quite simply, dominating the game.
But the Black Bears surged in the third, like you figured a team that has made six straight NCAA tournaments would. They outshot Harvard, 14-7. They hustled. They generated rushes without giving up many in return. They got good goaltending.
And, of course, they got a little lucky, too.
"If you come back from a 4-1 deficit, you’ve got to get some lucky bounces," admitted Maine senior Colin Shields.
But all of this doesn’t make this loss any easier to take. The Crimson had, in the words of Black Bears coach Tim Whitehead, "thoroughly outplayed" the best team in the land. Maine goaltender Jimmy Howard—he of the nation-leading 1.05 goals-against average and .958 save percentage entering the game—was on the bench to start the third period, having tied a season-high four goals allowed.
"We executed our game plan to a 'T' for two periods," said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni.
That was before the Black Bears staged an offensive tour de force in the third.
About four minutes into the period, Jon Jankus found Mike Hamilton open, high in the slot. A quick wrister later, and it was a 4-2 game.
Twelve seconds later, a goal-mouth scramble in front of Grumet-Morris resulted in Tyler Kolarik going off for obstruction-holding. Things went from bad to worse when, in arguably the game’s most critical non-scoring play, Rob Fried was whistled for slashing on the same shorthanded rush on which Kevin Du nearly restored Harvard’s three-goal lead.
That gave the Black Bears 35 seconds on the 5-on-3. Just after Kolarik rejoined the play Prestin Ryan picked up a rebound in the slot and made it 4-3.
The momentum had shifted completely and permanently.
"When it was 4-2, it was fine," Mazzoleni said. "When it was 4-3, they really started to come at us...and we didn’t have an answer. That’s the bottom line."
Grumet-Morris admitted he saw Ryan’s shot, but said he was screened on the tying and winning goals.
The first came from Michel Léveillé, with only 7:13 left in the third. In transition, he pulled up just after he crossed the blue line. It deflected off a skate—maybe two or three—and beat Grumet-Morris low to his left side.
Heartbreak came with 4:10 remaining. Kolarik had the chance to play a loose puck along the boards, but unknowingly turned the wrong way. That fed Moore, who dug it out from the dasher and fired a slapper that eluded Grumet-Morris low to his left side.
Bedlam in the Black Bear section. Dead, foreboding silence for the Crimson contingent.
The change in mood wouldn’t have been so striking if it hadn’t have been so strong the other way mere minutes before. Harvard was playing its best hockey of the season and getting contributions from everyone.
How about Reese? The freshman from Pittsburgh hadn’t scored a goal all season. But playoff hockey tends to make heroes out of the unlikeliest players, and here was Reese, sending a just-barely-good-enough snap shot over the purportedly error-free glove of Howard with 2:59 left in the first.
As unexpected as Reese’s goal was, Harvard’s second goal was equally shocking.
Howard had not allowed an even-strength goal in his last 11 games, dating all the way back to a Dec. 5 outing against Merrimack. That changed with 16.5 seconds left in the period, when top-line hosses Dennis Packard and Brendan Bernakevitch bull-rushed the net. Bernakevitch followed Packard’s shot in front with his 11th goal of the season and team-leading 11th postseason point. Any mystique Howard had left after the first goal was gone.
How about this for a first period summary:
Shots on goal: Harvard 17, Maine 15.
Score: Harvard 2, Maine 0.
Harvard’s run didn’t end there. On a carry-over power play, Packard went in 1-on-1 along the left wing and tied up his stick with Howard’s to give his team a 3-0 lead just 1:09 into the second period.
Was this really happening? Was this really Maine, the No. 1 team in the country? Was this really Howard, the No. 1 goalie in the country?
The Black Bears showed a little life when Todd Jackson scored about two minutes later, but back came the Crimson with a second-effort goal from Maki at 16:47 of the second.
Everything, it seemed, was going Harvard’s way. But that was before the Third Period From Hell.
The Crimson appeared as though it was finally on the precipice of an NCAA tournament win and a loud national statement. Instead, all that was in store was a near-silent dressing room and quiet bus ride home.
"Tough way to go," Smith lamented.
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.