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Albany, NY—For all the excitement and scoring over the final 15 minutes of hockey, the first 47 minutes of the ECAC Championship Saturday night was about the best goaltending a team can have.
The top two goaltenders in the conference faced off in the form of Cornell’s Dave LeNeveu and Harvard sophomore Dov Grumet-Morris, and for those first 47 minutes the fans in Albany were treated to a demonstration of why those two names lead the statistical categories across the ECAC and the nation.
On this night LeNeveu, named the Tournament MVP and Dryden Award winner as the best goaltender in the conference, showed why he is so highly regarded. The sophomore stopped 25 of the 27 shots he faced, blanking the Crimson for the first 48 minutes of the game.
Harvard captain Dominic Moore finally broke the ice for the Crimson, off a turnover deep in the Big Red zone and a point-blank shot that found the back of the net. With few exceptions, Harvard’s early shots were from the outside as Cornell defenders kept the center of the ice clear of traffic. As time wore on and none of their perimeter shots met with success, the Crimson forwards began maneuvering with the puck as close to the net as possible before shooting.
“They just got better opportunities sometimes as the game wore on,” LeNeveu said.
And while those opportunities from inside were the key to cracking LeNeveu, just the opposite was the case for Grumet-Morris, whose three misses were all from the perimeter.
The first goal came on the Big Red’s opening power play, not two minutes into the game. Cornell captain Stephen Bâby fired a hard shot from the point, and winger Sam Paolini, creating traffic in front, deflected the puck past Grumet-Morris to give the Big Red an early lead.
Cornell’s second goal, the one that tied the score, came off a faceoff in Harvard’s end with less than a minute on the clock. Junior center Ryan Vesce won the draw back to defenseman Mark McRae. With Moore skating over to cut off the Big Red’s best shooter, Doug Murray, McRae drifted towards the middle with the puck before firing through traffic. That shot found its way through the traffic and Grumet-Morris could not find the puck.
“They won the draw, and they blocked out well,” Grumet-Morris said. “[McRae] made a good shot, and it went off the post and in.”
With a 15-minute intermission to consider the game-tying goal before the overtime, Grumet-Morris said he came out ready to face another period of Cornell’s attack.
“Your attitude is the same before or after a goal,” Grumet-Morris said. “You go in there, you try to do your best and make them make a perfect shot to beat you.”
For the Crimson though, that perfect shot was soon to come. The game-winner was a hard shot, and very frustrating since the team had seen it before.
It reminded many of the John Ronan shot less than two minutes into the overtime against Maine that eliminated Harvard from the NCAA Tournament a year ago. This time, the Crimson’s nemesis Paolini (eight goals and eight assists lifetime against Harvard, the most of any Cornell player) skated around junior defenseman Kenny Smith and skated hard into the Crimson zone, creating a 2-on-1.
“I just tried to get it behind [Smith’s] heels and fortunately I was able to sidestep him,” Paolini said. “I shot it as hard as I could and it went over his glove.”
“The overtime goal was reminiscent of the Maine goal last year,” Grumet-Morris said. “It was a good shot.”
Despite giving up three goals over the course of the game, Grumet-Morris made several strong saves, especially after Moore’s tying-goal when the Big Red forced itself into Harvard’s zone and kept the puck in for nearly four minutes of strong pressure.
History seemed to be repeating itself when junior forward Tim Pettit took a penalty for holding the stick not one minute into the contest. The early penalty called to mind the last contest between these teams at Bright a month ago in which early Harvard penalties gave Cornell a lead it would never relinquish.
"We were just trying to stay positive and keep it simple,” Kolarik said. “It's tough when they get a power play right off the bat.” This time, the Crimson didn’t face a three-goal deficit, but rather a 1-0 hole after Paolini redirected Murray’s blue-line slapper past Grumet-Morris.
“I thought we competed from the opening faceoff right down to the end,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni said. “We were totally disciplined. Our team battled back from Cornell’s early goal.”
Still, the early scores by the Big Red during opening-minute penalties become frustrating when the Crimson ends up losing by one, as has been the case in the last two meetings between the rivals.
“You’ve got to give credit to your opponents,” Mazzoleni said.
Cornell is a talented team that deserves credit for defeating Harvard twice in two highly competitive games. But if the team could find away to avoid its early penalties, Crimson hockey fans might have to concede a little less credit to the Lynah Faithful.
Cornell’s success utilizing faceoffs in its opponent’s zone was evident in McRae’s game-tying goal. The Big Red’s formula for success goes something like this: Rely on Vesce to win the draw, which he usually does. Have the outside wing pinch in and form a screen with Vesce, preventing the opposing team’s forwards from rushing out to attack the defenseman with the puck. Allow Cornell’s accurate shooters to fire free of pressure from the blue line.
And this recipe was exactly what the Big Red cooked up for the game-tying goal.
“They are a great faceoff team,” Kolarik said. “You saw it right there.”
That aforementioned screen that Vesce and a forward form is, of course, illegal.
“There are a number of penalties that could have been called—you look at obstruction off the faceoffs,” Mazzoleni said.
But Harvard knew that was a Cornell tactic going in, and despite that forewarning the Big Red was able to convert with that play when it needed to most.
Junior forward Tyler Kolarik’s return wasn’t in the early line charts. He was inserted in the final version put out just an hour before game time.
"It was a last-minute decision; I was begging them from the beginning, trying to get in the lineup,” Kolarik said. “I just thought I could do it."
That decision proved itself when Kolarik redirected a Brett Nowak shot to put Harvard ahead 2-1 with 3:46 to go.
“I didn’t know if Brett was going to shoot it or pass it,” Kolarik said. “I just thought that I’m going to try and deflect it.”
While not as dramatic as his game-winning shot in double overtime versus Cornell a year ago, all done with a broken thumb, Kolarik’s return to the lineup provided a needed spark. And while that spark did not ignite a Crimson victory, it signals good things about the week ahead.
If all indications are correct, Harvard will make the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1993-1994. The Crimson will find out for certain when it gathers at Bright Hockey Center to watch the NCAA Selection Show on ESPN at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Moore said that being able to play in the NCAA Regionals next weekend gives the team consolation after Saturday night’s loss.
“I told the team after the game that, as much as this hurts, our goal since the beginning of the season has been to get to the Frozen Four in Buffalo, and that goal is still very much intact,” Moore said. “When I leave the rink tonight I’ll have a smile on my face, because I’m looking forward to starting that journey.”
Where Harvard’s quest will begin, though, is still very much at issue. But amazingly, the Crimson—which wasn’t even assured of a berth when the weekend began—looks to be a No. 3 seed wherever it plays, which puts Harvard between the ninth- and 12th-highest ranked teams in the nation.
Because the other No. 3 seeds are all teams from Western conferences—Michigan, Ohio State and North Dakota—the Crimson has an excellent chance of staying close to home, in Providence, R.I. or Worcester. If Harvard goes to Providence, Maine—the team that knocked the Crimson out of the tournament last season—is a likely opponent. If Harvard is sent to Worcester, it would likely play Boston University, which is the host school at that site.
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at email@example.com.
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