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For most teams, playoff success is about winning any way possible. “Survive and advance” their coaches say, looking at the end result far more than the quality of play.
But just winning wasn’t good enough for Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni.
Mazzoleni ripped into his players after Friday’s Game 1 victory over Vermont, warning them that they would not “survive and advance” much longer unless they cut down on their penalties and sloppy play.
Harvard jumped on Vermont early in Game 2 and, unlike on Friday, never let the Catamounts back into it, cruising to a 5-1 win to sweep their best-of-three ECAC Quarterfinal series.
“I thought we were exceptional,” Mazzoleni said. “We executed everything we needed to do tonight. I couldn’t ask any more out of them.”
Harvard (21-8-2, 17-4-1 ECAC) advances to the ECAC Championships in Albany, N.Y., where it will face Dartmouth Friday night in the semifinals. A win there and then the next night in the finals—against the winner of No. 2 Cornell and Brown—would give the No. 12 Crimson its first back-to-back ECAC titles in school history. More importantly, Harvard would also earn the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
A loss, though, puts Harvard in the precarious position of having its fate rest on factors well outside its control. A mere fraction of a percentage point in the Rating Percentage Index rankings could be the difference between a second-consecutive NCAA appearance and a disappointing season.
Harvard would likely make the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. Both No. 14 Denver and St. Cloud State lost last night and were eliminated from the WCHA playoffs, helping to improve the Crimson’s chances. But a No. 15 Michigan State victory over Northern Michigan on Thursday could put Harvard back on the NCAA bubble.
The Crimson’s dominating effort on Saturday served notice that it has no intention of letting others decide its NCAA fate. Harvard set the tone early, taking advantage of an early Vermont penalty to score on junior Noah Welch’s slap shot from the point.
Vermont coach Mike Gilligan had warned his team about taking penalties after the Catamounts (13-20-3, 8-14-0) gave up two shorthanded goals on Friday. Unlike Harvard, however, Vermont did not heed its coach’s advice.
“The message all week was to stay out of the box, and we just didn’t do it,” Gilligan said. “They played much better than they did last night, and we didn’t play quite as well. I don’t think we really brought our ‘A Game’ down here.”
But the Crimson didn’t need the extra man to control play. Harvard spent the rest of the first period skating circles around the Catamount defense, outshooting Vermont 15-9 in one of its most dominant periods of the season. Freshman Charlie Johnson notched the Crimson’s second goal seven minutes into the game. Junior Rob Fried gave Harvard a 3-0 lead minutes later, converting a pinpoint centering pass from senior Aaron Kim.
“We knew if we got a couple of goals on them we could hold them down,” senior forward Brett Nowak said. “They didn’t have a lot of confidence and we thought that maybe they’d pack it in.”
Vermont did close to 3-1 halfway through the second period on an individual effort from Jeff Miles, who beat two Crimson defenders before slipping the puck by sophomore goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris.
But Harvard would not let the Catamounts make a game of it, as Nowak scored on a 4-on-3 just 50 seconds later to squash all hopes of a Vermont comeback.
Captain Dominic Moore made it 5-1 with another 4-on-3 score early in the third period. Yet the goal never should have happened. Harvard had five skaters on the ice during the faceoff, but referee Jack Dunn dropped the puck anyway.
“I can see why they’d be upset, but it’s not our fault, and I’m not going to wait around for them to call a penalty,” Moore said.
Incensed at the non-call and with its season now all but over, Vermont took out its frustrations on the Crimson physically. But unlike Friday, Harvard simply walked away and avoided the box all period.
The Crimson’s newfound discipline was a fitting final touch to a brilliant game. It’s a level of excellence Harvard will need to maintain, as the competition gets much tougher starting Friday.
“There’s nothing at all [to change],” Mazzoleni said. “We’ve got to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. It’s a good momentum builder for us going into Friday night.”
—Staff writer Elijah M. Alper can be reached at email@example.com.
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