Rarely does one game epitomize a season so poignantly, so completely.
For months, the Harvard men’s hockey team struggled to find its identity. Losses, frustrations and discontent ruled a regular season that dawned with more hope and hype than any in recent memory. Once ranked sixth in the nation, the Crimson won six times between Thanksgiving and mid-February. It stood 12-14-3 as the playoffs began.
Then it happened. Harvard won seven straight—its longest win steak in 11 seasons—in a convincing march to the ECAC title, punctuated with The Crimson’s Game of the Year: a last-minute, come-from-behind, 4-2 victory over Clarkson in the ECAC championship game at Albany’s Pepsi Arena on March 20.
“As confident as we were, we never expected it to come easily,” captain Kenny Smith said last week. “The way it all happened just adds to the memory.”
True to form, Harvard trailed that game, 2-0, after one period. This win—like the season itself—was a real back-from-the-brink job. Anything else would’ve been wildly out of character. And in the end, they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, even though we underachieved,” junior defenseman Noah Welch said in the afterglow of the title. “What we went through, the way we rose above it, we’re better men for it.”
Easy to say now, of course, but if they truly had this game under control from the start, they had everybody fooled. The No. 9-seeded Knights, bidding to become the lowest-seeded team to win the ECAC, staked out a 2-0 lead on goals by Chris Blight and Tristan Lush.
Bad news for Harvard. Only once in 19 postseason games—Game 2 of this year’s quarterfinal at Brown—had Harvard’s seniors rallied from a two-goal deficit to win.
While muffled sounds of expected victory seeped through the walls of the Clarkson dressing room, Harvard’s was quiet. “There was this silent confidence,” Welch said. “Our guys just knew.”
Having already resurrected a season, they figured, “What’s one more game?” At least, that’s what we presume was going through the mind of junior center Tom Cavanagh, who at that moment was about to carve his legacy in Harvard hockey lore.
Cavanagh, whose father, three-time All-American Joe ’71, has already done plenty to ensure the family a place in the school’s puck annals, played the subsequent period with skate blades afire. He scored 10 seconds after the opening draw, cutting across the grain to backhand in Harvard’s first goal of the night. “That was the turning point,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said last week.
But Cavanagh wasn’t done. Less than five minutes later, senior 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. Tie game.
Only afterward did those outside Harvard’s locker room truly grasp the extent of Cavanagh’s exploits. He had been up through the night, vomiting. He was still sick during the game. And yet, he managed to carry an entire team, an entire season on his back. “He’s a gamer,” Mazzoleni said. “That’s something he has inside that you can’t measure.”
“He hadn’t slept. He hadn’t eaten. He just went out there and willed it,” said Smith, who couldn’t recall a gutsier effort, under the circumstances, in his four years here. “You can’t teach being clutch. That’s what Cav is.”
But Harvard was due for one more hero before the night was out.
The game remained deadlocked well into the third, before the teams lined up for a faceoff to the right of Traylen with under a minute left. Harvard had a set play. Brendan Bernakevitch, later named tournament most outstanding player, would win the draw back to Welch—who only minutes earlier had remarked to Smith, “Why don’t one of us go out and win this game.”
Bernakevitch beat Jay Latulippe cleanly. But rather than go to Welch, the puck ricocheted off Bernakevitch’s skate to Smith.
Faced with a similar situation earlier in the postseason, Smith opted to make a back-pass to Welch—a decision for which assistant coach Sean McCann ’94 later scolded, “Don’t pass up shots from the point.”
“I had that exact message in my head right then,” Smith said.
It sure looked like it. As soon as the puck touched his stick, Smith sent it goalward, snapping it through a thicket of bodies in front. That sublime bit of stickwork sent the game-winner sailing past an unknowing Traylen to deliver a second Whitelaw Cup in three seasons for the first time in Harvard history.
“There is no better feeling than this,” Smith said, standing amid the on-ice celebration that night. “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.”
It was fitting that Smith—benched twice during the season, before posting one of the team’s highest plus/minus ratings after exams—delivered the win on his serendipitous snapper. He once typified the team’s midseason tribulation. Now and forever, he will be associated with its greatest triumph.
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.