It wasn’t looking good for the Harvard women’s hockey team midway through the second period of Saturday night’s matchup with Rensselaer. The Crimson trailed by three goals and was unable to get anything past Engineers’ goalkeeper Brianna Piper.
But after struggling through the first 35 minutes of play, Harvard dominated the final 25, scoring five unanswered goals to grab a 5-3 win at Bright Hockey Center.
Sophomore Gina McDonald turned in her best performance of the year, finishing with her first hat trick of the season to lead the Crimson past the Engineers (11-5-1, 8-3-1 ECAC).
“A huge character win for us,” said Harvard coach Katey Stone, whose team also received scores from junior Jillian Dempsey and sophomore Kalley Armstrong. “Our kids just didn’t quit, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. They played with a lot of moxie. It wasn’t easy, and they just kept believing in themselves and doing what we were trying to get them to do.”
After allowing 10 shots on goal in the first period, Harvard clamped down defensively, holding RPI (5-15-4, 2-8-3) to just eight attempts in the final two periods combined.
Engineers senior Jill Vandergrift, who had her way with the Crimson defense early on, registering a goal and an assist on four shots, was held without an attempt in the final period of play.
“We definitely put a big focus on making sure that the defensemen didn’t get any shots up,” McDonald said. “We tried to limit that, so I think that probably was a major contribution to keeping their shots down.”
“Defensively, we played very well,” Stone added. “We put a ton of pressure on them, and fortunately, it paid off for us.”
While the Crimson’s defensive pressure helped keep RPI from getting good looks at the Harvard goal, the Crimson also managed to register more shots of its own. Midway through the game, Stone opted to switch Harvard’s offensive strategy. The Crimson opted for more aggressive power play formation and emphasized attacking the net in an attempt to notch goals off of rebounds.
Dempsey was the first to strike for the Crimson, beating Piper with a lefty shot that found the back of the net with 3:29 to play in the second period. McDonald followed suit 86 seconds later, scoring a power-play goal.
“It was a scrum in front of the net, McDonald said. “I just know [the puck] ended up popping out to my back door side of the net, and I ended up just being able to touch it in at the last second.”
Thanks to McDonald’s score, the Crimson went into the final intermission trailing by just one, 3-2.
“It was huge to score those goals at the end of the second period so it was a better situation going into the third period,” Stone said.
Harvard’s momentum carried over into the third, as the Crimson evened the score 7:35 into the period. This time it was Armstrong who found the net for Harvard, rebounding a missed shot from freshman Sarah Edney and then sneaking it past Piper.
McDonald gave the Crimson its first lead of the game less than two minutes later off passes from freshmen Marissa Gedman and Hillary Crowe.
“Gina McDonald had a great night tonight,” Stone said. “She just buzzsawed in the right places.”
The Engineers had one last shot at evening the score late in the third period when Gedman was sent to the penalty box for two minutes for checking. But RPI couldn’t find the back of the net, as Kathryn Schilter’s shot was blocked and Taylor Mahoney’s attempt was wide. With 3:12 to play, the Crimson was back at full strength. The Engineers pulled their goalie with 1:09 to go, but Harvard made them pay, as Hillary Crowe came up with a steal and found McDonald, who scored the empty-netter for her third goal of the game, sealing the comeback win, 5-3.
“We were pretty hungry for goals, and it was great coming back,” McDonald said.
—Staff writer Martin Kessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.