UPDATED: March 21, 2016, at 3:35 a.m.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — With 10 seconds to go in the first period of Saturday night’s ECAC championship game, Quinnipiac held its breath.
One season after a leg injury kept Bobcat star Sam Anas out of the ECAC men’s hockey semifinals against Harvard, Quinnipiac’s most dangerous weapon was gone once more. Crimson junior Luke Esposito crushed the 5’8” Anas into the boards behind the Bobcat net, bringing another ECAC tournament run for the conference’s leading point-getter to a premature close.
Quinnipiac, on the other hand, was just getting started.
Esposito received a five-minute boarding major for the hit, putting the Bobcats on the man advantage for the first 4:50 of the second period. And despite missing its leading man, the Quinnipiac power play put on a show.
The No. 2/2 Bobcats scored twice on the major and a third time on another 5-on-4 minutes later to put a stranglehold on their first ECAC championship in program history by way of a 4-1 win over No. 9/9 Harvard.
“The guys, they were mad with the hit,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “It’s part of hockey. For us, it was more about getting focused. Sam was done, and we had to move on.”
“When you get to the [ECAC’s] final four or the NCAA tournament, it’s a one-shot deal,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “You have to be able to manage those momentum swings. You have to be able to stay away from that big mistake. Tonight, we certainly weren’t.”
Second-team all-ECAC honoree Tim Clifton set the Bobcat freight train in motion 1:11 into the second, beating sophomore netminder Merrick Madsen from the right faceoff circle for his 18th score of the year. Sophomore Landon Smith picked up an assist on the play, then scored a goal of his own from nearly the same spot less than two minutes later with Esposito still a helpless spectator.
After Esposito finally left the box, freshman Adam Baughman was quick to take his place. Junior winger K.J. Tiefenwerth made the Crimson (19-10-4, 12-6-4 ECAC) pay for a holding call on the rookie, stuffing home a rebound at 7:20.
“We just can’t be in the box that long with a great team like Quinnipiac,” Harvard co-captain Kyle Criscuolo said. “Madsen’s been really good on the penalty kill for us all year, [but] I don’t think he saw a few.”
Just as the Bobcats (29-3-7, 16-1-5) began to run away with the contest, however, freshman Ryan Donato pulled the Crimson right back into contention. Eight seconds following Quinnipiac’s third and final power play strike, Donato sniped a wrister over senior goaltender Michael Garteig’s left shoulder from the right faceoff circle to make it 3-1.
Ten minutes later, Harvard generated a shorthanded opportunity that could have pulled it within one, as co-captains Jimmy Vesey and Criscuolo broke free on an effective 2-on-0.
Criscuolo made his way up the right wing and fed a pass through the low slot to Vesey, who had more than a step on the nearest Quinnipiac defenseman. But the puck never laid flat.
“I definitely had him,” said Vesey in reference to Garteig. “I think the puck was bouncing the whole way, and Kyle was trying to settle it…. It almost went over the top of my stick, and that’s not where I was trying to go with it.”
The Crimson remained within striking distance in the third, but freshman Scott Davidson put an end to Harvard’s comeback bid with an empty-netter 1:09 prior to the end of regulation. The Crimson finished with just 25 shots, its lowest output since Harvard laid an egg against Northeastern in the Beanpot consolation game (20 shots) on Feb. 8.
Last year’s ECAC tournament champions did generate 10 attempts in the opening period though, as the Crimson controlled play early. Harvard held the Bobcats to just four shots in the first 15 minutes and also drew two penalties. But neither power play produced a score, and the Crimson finished 0-for-4 there on the night.
“When it’s all said and done, whatever way we want to spin it, they executed on special teams; we didn’t,” Ted Donato said.
Harvard was without junior Sean Malone, a mainstay on the penalty-killing unit, who was scratched for precautionary reasons after dealing with cramps Friday night. Donato says he fully expects him to be back by next weekend, when the Crimson opens its NCAA tournament run against No. 5/4 Boston College.
Meanwhile, after being crowned champion of the ECAC, Quinnipiac earned the top overall seed in hockey's edition of the Big Dance. The Bobcats had previously reached the ECAC championship just once (2007) since joining the league in 2005.
Despite the shortage of appearances in the ECAC title game, however, Quinnipiac’s veterans have accumulated no shortage of hardware. The Bobcats’ seniors have rattled off 106 career wins, securing three Cleary Cups as regular season ECAC champions along the way. And now they finally have the Whitelaw to add to the collection.
“Our senior class is out of this world right now,” Quinnipiac senior Soren Jonzzon said. “We’ve had four years of really strong, great teams, and to finally come away with one, it’s unbelievable.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.