In Playoffs, Cavanagh Rises to Occasion

He is Harvard’s version of The Quiet Man, and if being compared to John Wayne—in one of his funniest performances in which he plays a boxer returned to Ireland to win over a fiery country girl and beat up her bullying brother—isn’t a compliment I don’t know what is. It’s also a statement on how humble (and barely audible) junior center Tom Cavanagh is. But this weekend, and actually for the three weeks of the ECAC playoffs, Cavangh’s on-ice performance has been speaking volumes and enhancing his already sizable reputation as a clutch performer.

“Don’t call him Cavy anymore. He’s Mr. Playoffs,” joked junior defenseman Noah Welch.

“The kid’s a superstar,” agreed captain Kenny Smith. “[He’s] one of the most unbelievable players I’ve ever played with.”

Over the six games that encompassed the conference playoffs, Harvard fans grew to believe in the constancy of Cavanagh’s clutch performances. During ECACs, he has scored eight points, with five assists and three absolutely critical goals. The first of his big goals came in the 3-2 overtime against Brown. It was Cavanagh who broke the 2-2 stalemate by putting the puck past Dryden Award-winning goaltender Yann Danis, and in so doing he sent the Crimson on to the ECAC Championships in Albany, N.Y.

And there in Albany came a less dramatic, but no less essential, kind of scoring. In last Saturday’s ECAC Championship against Clarkson, Harvard fell behind 2-0 after the first period on goals from Chris Blight and Tristan Lush that were less than a minute apart. Trailing by two goals, an unlikely catalyst emerged for the Crimson.

He was only unlikely because of illness, as the man Welch dubbed “Mr. Playoffs” had been unable to keep down any food leading up to Saturday’s game after catching a stomach virus. But that did not stop Cavanagh from playing, nor from starting, in the championship. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to any observer who knows how fierce a competitor he is. Assistant captain Rob Fried joked that the stomach virus and the vomiting weren’t all that important because Cavanagh would occasionally puke as a result of his intensely hard play on the ice.

The results Cavanagh produced on Saturday certainly belied the true extent of his illness. Just ten ticks into the second period, and with Harvard skating a man up, Cavanagh took a lead pass from junior Brendan Bernakevitch and slipped the puck between Clarkson netminder Dustin Traylan’s legs, at last marking the scoreboard for Harvard.

And he wasn’t done there. At 4:50 of the second, Cavanagh skated in on a two-on-one break, chose to shoot instead of pass, and flung a hard and fast wrister by Traylan. And just like that, the game was tied. It was, according to Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni a goal that “changed the complexion of the game.”

“That was an unbelievable effort by Tommy at the start of the second period, and you just knew things were going our way,” agreed Smith. “He was phenomenal, unbelievable.”

“What he did on Saturday [against Clarkson] wasn’t unexpected because he always plays hard like that,” added Fried.

Phrases like “competitive spirit” and “constant intensity” are things you hear often if you hang around those who know Cavanagh well. Those who know Cavanagh best sing his praises loud and clear, which is necessary given that the best any reporter can extract from him is no more than what you’d expect from the Crimson’s own John Wayne: it’s a humble whisper.

—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at