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ALBANY, N.Y.—It came full circle Saturday night.
Same championship game. Same end of the ice. Same time remaining.
But so delectably different.
Almost one year to the day the ECAC championship slipped through the skates of Harvard’s icemen on a draw play, here they were again at Pepsi Arena, lining up with about 30 seconds remaining and the league title at stake.
But this time, there was no disappointment. Only euphoria.
Kenny Smith, the Crimson captain benched twice during the regular season, wristed in a clean faceoff win by tournament most outstanding player Brendan Bernakevitch under the crossbar, delivering Harvard’s seventh ECAC title with a pulsating, come-from-behind 4-2 win over ninth-seeded Clarkson.
“Last year hurt so much,” Smith remembered. “But there is no better feeling than this.”
Harvard, 9-1-1 in its last 11 games and 18-14-3 overall, returns to Albany for an NCAA East Regional game against Hockey East champion Maine (30-7-3) at 5 p.m. Friday. The winner faces either Ohio State or Wisconsin for a ticket to the Frozen Four at Boston’s FleetCenter.
This is the Crimson’s third consecutive NCAA appearance, the program’s longest such streak since reaching five straight from 1985-1989. Harvard is one of only five teams to make the last three NCAA tournaments. The others are Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and Minnesota.
All of this—the ECAC title, an NCAA berth, success in general—seemed such a distant possibility for the Crimson a month ago, when the team was performing well below preseason expectations at 9-13-2.
But Harvard remade itself at the outset of the ECAC tournament with sweeps of Vermont and Brown before squeezing out a 2-1 semifinal victory over Dartmouth. And on Saturday arrived a second Whitelaw Cup in a three-year span for the first time in school history.
Fitting that this transpired in Albany, where almost exactly six months ago the Crimson was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite at ECAC media day.
That announcement was the relative high point of the regular season in which Harvard finished sixth, a disappointing winter in every respect. And the only thing that could rectify that was in Smith’s hands by the end of the night.
“These guys deserve a championship,” he said, smiling, as his teammates filed off the ice. “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.”
But just like the Crimson’s season, the ultimate goal seemed unreachable for awhile on Saturday night.
Harvard played a tentative first period—it was outshot 10-6—and fell behind when Clarkson winger Chris Blight beat Dov Grumet-Morris five-hole with 3:21 remaining in the period.
No big deal, right? The Crimson entered the final 4-2 in the last four ECAC tournament when the opponent scored first, including last weekend’s series-clincher at Brown.
But before Harvard could settle itself down, the Golden Knights went up 2-0. Michael Grenzy sent in a point shot that Grumet-Morris saved routinely but made the mistake of turning aside to his right. There, Tristan Lush warded off Crimson defender Dylan Reese, pounced on the loose puck and whipped it in.
Bad, bad news for Harvard. Only once in 19 postseason games—Game 2 at Brown last weekend—had the team’s seniors rallied from a two-goal deficit to win. And only four times had the Crimson come back from a deficit of any kind to win.
Still, there was a palpable sense that Harvard was going to overcome the demons of last year’s ECAC title game and an agonizing regular season all at once.
“If you guys were in the locker room, you would’ve seen it,” nodded junior Noah Welch. “There was this silent confidence. Our guys just knew.”
Maybe so. Still, it would’ve been hard for anyone to predict Tom Cavanagh’s scintillating second period.
Ten seconds after the opening draw, Cavanagh—who had vomited through a sleepless Friday night with the stomach flu—took a feed from Bernakevitch, cut across the grain and backhanded in his fifth power-play goal of the season.
Clarkson 2, Cavanagh 1.
“The kid’s a superstar,” Smith said. “One of the most unbelievable players I’ve ever played with.”
Less than five minutes later, 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.
Clarkson 2, Cavanagh 2.
His awestruck teammates chalked it up as another in a lineage of clutch playoff performances that began with his overtime game-winner against the Golden Knights in the 2002 ECAC semis and continued with his series-clincher against Brown.
“Don’t call him Cavy anymore. He’s Mr. Playoffs,” smiled Welch. “I read somewhere Michael Jordan played his best games when he was sick …”
Mazzoleni said Cavanagh’s second goal “changed the complexion of the game.” The numbers agree. Harvard held a 19-6 edge in shots on goal over the final two periods, but it wasn’t until Smith’s late strike that the Crimson foiled Clarkson’s bid to become the lowest seed to win the ECAC.
Ironically enough, the scoring play itself was designed to go to Welch, not Smith. “Ninety percent of the time that goes to Noah and I block out,” he said.
Instead, the puck bounced off Bernakevitch’s skate, directly to Smith’s tape. From there, Smith went about fulfilling what Welch had prophesied to him on the bench with five minutes left: “Why don’t one of us go out and win this game.”
Senior Dennis Packard scored an empty-netter with 12.7 seconds remaining to ensure that his senior class would be the first in Harvard history to graduate with two ECAC titles.
Bernakevitch, Cavanagh, McCulloch and Grumet-Morris were named to the all-tournament team. Most importantly, this year’s Whitelaw has taken up residence in Cambridge.
“This,” Smith marveled in the midst of the on-ice celebration, “is perfect.”
—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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