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LAKE PLACID, N.Y.—Prior to Friday afternoon’s ECAC tournament semifinal game between the No. 17/15 Harvard and No. 7/7 Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey teams, Jimmy Vesey received his trophy as ECAC Player of the Year. Over the ensuing 60 minutes of hockey, the junior forward proved why he deserved the honor.
Carrying the puck behind the goal line on the game’s opening shift, Vesey threw a shot towards goal which skipped off a Bobcat defenseman and into the back of the net to put the Crimson (20-12-3, 11-8-3 ECAC) up by one just 30 seconds in. And in a contest bookended by scores from the Nashville Predators prospect, Vesey added an empty netter in the final stages of the game to send Harvard to its first ECAC championship game since 2012 with a 5-2 victory at Herb Brooks Arena.
Vesey’s goal set the tone for the first period as the Crimson jumped out to an early three-goal lead on scores from fourth-year forward Colin Blackwell and sophomore center Tyler Moy. The lead was one that would stand for the entirety of the game as the Bobcats (23-11-4, 16-3-3) were forced to play from behind for all but the first half-minute of action.
“Our overall play in the first was probably our best,” Vesey said. “That was the start we wanted, and we fed off that.”
Nonetheless, the regular season conference champion never backed down. Fighting off Harvard’s third power play of the game midway through the second, Quinnipiac got itself back into the game by capitalizing on a Crimson miscue.
After sophomore forward Sean Malone tripped over the attacking blue line, Bobcat defenseman Justin Agosta snatched the puck from the sophomore’s feet and skated out to a two-on-one with senior forward Alex Barron. Once Barron entered the lower half of the slot, Agosta dished the puck off, but rather than pulling the trigger, Barron dumped an additional pass off to junior center Travis St. Denis.
The top-liner’s first shot was sent wide, but with Crimson goaltender Steve Michalek out of position, St. Denis went behind the net to retrieve his own rebound and guided it in for Quinnipiac’s first score of the night and his 15th of the season.
Less than six minutes later, the Bobcats were at it again. With Michalek scrambling to get back to his crease after playing a puck behind his own net, junior forward Soren Jonzzon took advantage, ripping a shot through the net-minder’s five-hole to cut the Crimson’s lead to one.
“We just made a couple mistakes, and they capitalized on those,” Vesey said. “It started getting a little bit scary on the bench because they were kind of pressing us, but I think we were all happy when that buzzer went off and [we] could regroup and come back out for the third.”
Following the game, Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 proved to be in agreement with Vesey. But Donato, who will be coaching in his fifth conference championship game on Saturday, also found a way to put his team’s lead at the second intermission into perspective.
“If you had told us that we had a one-goal lead heading into the third period to make it to the championship game of our league a few months ago,” Donato began to claim, “I think we all would have taken it.”
St. Denis nearly found an equalizer multiple times in the third, including a great chance on the edge of the crease after receiving a pass from freshman forward Tanner MacMaster behind the net. Additionally, a power play following a Moy interference penalty with 8:33 remaining provided Quinnipiac with another chance to level the score.
But in accordance with tradition, the famous scoreboard of Herb Brooks Arena, which has been preserved for a number of decades, remained the same once more. The 3-2 scoreline would hold until the final two minutes of play, when Bobcat coach Rand Pecknold opted to pull goaltender Michael Garteig. Despite pressing for the game-tying goal, Quinnipiac could not beat Michalek a third time. Vesey recorded his second goal of the night and seventh of the playoffs on the empty net with 1:36 remaining, and Malone added another in the final minute to secure the win.
“[The score] got a lot closer than any of us probably would have liked,” Donato said. “But we stuck with it, made some big saves, [and] made some key plays at the end of the game to get us out of there and give us a chance to play for the championship tomorrow.”
The Bobcats’ comeback attempt came on the heels of a first period in which they could never find their rhythm. Quinnipiac approached the attacking zone several times in transition, but those chances led to turnovers and blocked shots more often than shots on target. The Bobcats generated just nine shots overall, only four of which came on net (Harvard registered 27 and 14, respectively).
Harvard added to its one-goal lead at the 14:55 mark in the first on the man advantage. After the Crimson’s first power play unit failed to generate much offense, the second unit, backed by Blackwell on the point, took to the ice.
After traffic cleared in front of the net and with the puck on his stick, Blackwell capitalized on the newly acquired space. From the top of the left faceoff circle, the forward lifted his stick and delivered a rocket into the top left corner of the net to double his side’s lead.
Blackwell has four goals in Harvard’s six postseason tilts after missing all but three of the team’s regular season games due to recurring concussion issues—issues that led everyone in attendance at Herb Brooks Arena to hold their collective breath early in the third period.
Positioned along the boards deep in his own zone, Blackwell took a hit from Bobcat forward Tim Clifton that sent the Harvard fourth-year crashing facedown to the ice clutching his head. But to the surprise of everyone in attendance at Herbs Brook Arena, Blackwell returned to the ice midway through the third, providing a constant presence on the forecheck and nearly finding the back of the net on a two-on-one chance late in the game.
“There’s a really tough balance as a coach with Colin,” Donato said. “He’s such a talented guy, and you want to see him do so well, but you also want to see him regain his health and be able to play…. Colin’s a difference-maker for us, and we’re excited that he was able to survive that.”
Moy added the third goal of the period less than a minute after Blackwell after jumping on a breakaway at center ice. Pecknold pulled Garteig following the score, but the junior would return at the start of the second, stopping each of the remaining 15 shots he saw.
But two Harvard goals on Garteig’s vacant net sealed the win in the end, setting up a championship match between the Crimson and No. 15/- Colgate on Saturday. Harvard now ranks 11th in the Pairwise and can lock up an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a win.
“[We've] got a great group of guys, and I think we all want [this run] to go as long as it can,” Vesey said.
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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