They say 3-1 is the most dangerous lead in hockey.
After 40 minutes of play, the Crimson was sitting pretty in Lake Placid, N.Y., up 3-1 in its ECAC semifinal against No. 10/8 Clarkson. So far, it seemed like Harvard had ticked off every point on the checklist. The team had withstood the Golden Knights’ early push and struck twice on the power play, all the while with tri-captain Merrick Madsen between the pipes to fend off Clarkson’s offense.
A solid third period would take the Crimson back to the ECAC final, where one year before it had stormed its way unbeaten to the Whitelaw Cup. Now, in a possible cup defense, the squad would face an upstart Princeton team that had fallen in both its matchups against Harvard this season. The Crimson, which had dropped out of the PairWise in November and hadn’t been back in the rankings since, would need an ECAC title to proceed to the NCAA tournament. But first, the team would have to survive the final 20 minutes of hockey.
In late February as the regular season closed, Harvard had clinched a top-four seed in the ECAC playoffs—coincidentally, after a decisive 5-2 win against the Golden Knights. But a disappointing winless finale against Brown and Yale in the following weeks meant the Crimson sat at No. 4 in the seeding. The team had a bye week to recover from those losses while it awaited its first playoff opponent.
“Getting home ice and a bye is not easy in our league,” said head coach Ted Donato ’91 after the season had concluded. “I thought our guys did a real good job [getting there].”
"Getting home ice and a bye is not easy in our league," Harvard coach Ted Donato '91 said.
The bye week wasn’t just a chance to catch a breath. Harvard had gained momentum in its mid-February tilts before grinding to a halt against the Bears and the Bulldogs, and would need to find its stride again if it hoped for a deep playoff run. While the offense needed its own retooling, the Crimson also needed to face the question it had been asking throughout the ups and downs of its season: who would backstop the team in net?
The obvious answer was tri-captain Merrick Madsen. The senior had helped power Harvard to the Frozen Four a year before, and would leave an indelible mark on the Crimson’s record books upon graduation. His numbers on the season (20 GP, .923 SV%, 2.18 GAA) weren’t too shabby either. Once Harvard knew it would face Dartmouth, Madsen’s experience counted even more in his favor—in the Crimson’s season sweep of the Big Green, Madsen had posted a stingy .978 save percentage and allowed only one goal.
But the stats concealed some of Madsen’s less impressive showings, such as a raucous 6-6 tie at Clarkson in January (.800 SV%, 6.12 GAA), and the coaching staff would not commit to any one particular net-minder. In its six February matchups, Harvard had seen all three goaltenders—Madsen, junior Michael Lackey, and sophomore Cam Gornet—start contests.
“We want a chance to win every night” was all coach Donato would say ahead of ECAC play against Dartmouth.
Despite coach Donato’s reticence and a Game 1 loss to the Big Green, Madsen held onto his place in net, recovering to post two strong showings as the Crimson moved onto Lake Placid. Late in the semifinal game against the Golden Knights, the squad and fans hoped that he would withstand any punches Clarkson threw his way.
At the other end of the ice, despite the score, the Golden Knights were not in as desperate a situation as Harvard. They had stayed in the rankings since a 15-game undefeated streak had catapulted them as high as No. 2, and so could still earn an NCAA berth with an at-large bid. That did not mean Clarkson was sitting back. The teams had traded momentum swings; the difference thus far was that the Crimson managed to capitalize on its opportunities and the Golden Knights could not.
Where Harvard had perhaps been most effective all season against Clarkson was in shutting down the North Country school’s formidable all-sophomore forward line. Sheldon Rempal (22–21—43), Devin Brosseau (10–21—31), and Nico Sturm (14–22—36) brought speed and dynamic offense to any matchup, but the trio had combined for zero even-strength goals against the Crimson.
Harvard would hope to keep it that way for just 20 more minutes. Its stars had already made their presence felt: junior forward Lewis Zerter-Gossage and rookie offensive-minded defenseman Reilly Walsh had found the net on the player advantage, and sophomore forward Ty Pelton-Byce had added the third tally on an assist from junior standout Ryan Donato. Either way, it seemed as though the next goal would blow the game wide open.
After the second intermission, the teams lined up for the faceoff at center to open the third period. Donato squared off against Golden Knights captain Nic Pierog for the draw, which Pierog won back to senior defender Kelly Summers at his own blue line. Summers drifted back as he corralled the puck, trying to avoid Pelton-Byce’s forecheck. Perhaps due to wet ice, the puck slipped from Summers’s stick, and was there for the taking.
Pelton-Byce scooped it away from the reaching Summers, streaking down the middle and backhanding the biscuit over the shoulder of Clarkson sophomore net-minder Jake Kielly. Just like that, Harvard was up 4-1 and celebrating. Only six seconds had passed in the final frame.
Another Pierog faceoff win prompted a Crimson line change. The same Clarkson players remained on the ice, as if determined to get one back for the tally they’d just conceded. Summers carried the puck into Harvard’s zone, and his shot went into Madsen’s pads and trickled into the high slot. Amidst the chaos around the net, sophomore forward Haralds Egle sent a drive towards the cage that Pierog deflected past Madsen, silencing the cheers of Crimson fans.
Though the Golden Knights’ answering punch still had Harvard up by two goals, something had changed in the fifteen seconds since intermission. The Crimson had wavered.
On January 19, Harvard visited then-No. 2/3 Clarkson, days before students flooded Cambridge again for the start of the spring semester. The Crimson hadn’t matched up well against ranked opponents thus far in the season, falling twice to No. 6 Minnesota and once to No. 12 Cornell, and tying No. 13 Boston College. To add to the challenge, the Golden Knights were then in the middle of their undefeated streak and hadn’t lost a game since late October.
Harvard, though, was riding its own stretch of fair play, having weathered three overtime games in its last four tilts to stay unbeaten in the new year. After his rocky start, Madsen seemed to have righted the ship, looking sharp in net even through extra hockey.
Fifty-nine seconds in, the Cheel Arena crowd was given a taste of what kind of game this would be, as Clarkson rookie forward Jack Jacome tallied early. Minutes later, junior Michael Floodstrand got one back for the Crimson, and the contest seemed to calm down—until a Donato power play goal allowed the visitors to take the lead in the second period. The teams traded leads at a frantic pace, and the dust settled for a 3-3 stalemate after the middle frame.
Sophomore forward Frédéric Gregoire broke the tie less than two minutes into the third for Harvard, and his notch was followed by an insurance tally from tri-captain Jake Horton. With the two-goal cushion in place, the Crimson prepared to close the game out. But the Golden Knights weren’t finished yet.
In the next eight minutes, Clarkson found the back of the net three times, chasing Madsen and beating Lackey twice to secure a 6-5 lead. Though Zerter-Gossage scored in the last minute of regulation to restore the tie and a scoreless overtime prevented the Golden Knights from stealing two points, the Herculean comeback effort was difficult to forget.
“Both teams can feel good about their perseverance,” said coach Donato in January. “I thought we kept coming and had a chance all the way down to the last second of overtime.”
Playoff hockey means a game cannot end in a tie, though. One of these teams would have to give way.
Clarkson’s quick response in the ECAC semifinal to bring the score to 4-2 certainly did not have Harvard running for the hills, but perhaps it reminded players of the January showdown, and how quickly the outcome of a contest could change when these two teams battled it out. Unfortunately for the Crimson, the Golden Knights began to recreate that very script.
30 seconds after Pierog’s goal, Harvard junior blue-liner Adam Baughman was whistled for tripping Rempal. Thus far, Clarkson had gone 1-for-5 on the power play, but an important strike here would go a long way in allowing the Golden Knights to take the game by the reins. Rempal kept the puck in the Crimson’s zone and circled the cage, with Sturm and Brosseau parked in front of the net. He fed Brosseau, whose top-corner snipe deflected off Madsen’s glove and in.
It only took a few more minutes for Clarkson to smell blood again, and on a similar play. Egle protected the puck down low, drawing attention to himself and away from senior forward Dylan Gareau, who was stationed right in front of Madsen. When the biscuit came to Gareau, he didn’t miss a beat, throwing it past the goaltender and tying the game. The Golden Knights crowd erupted. The work of the past two periods, it seemed, would come down to the last five minutes of regulation—or beyond.
Exactly a week before the semifinal, Harvard began its playoff run against Dartmouth, a team with a hot net-minder and a capable offense that belied its .500 record. Nevertheless, the Crimson had squelched both of these factors in its regular-season sweep of the Big Green, and entered the quarterfinal best-of-three series as the favorite.
Dartmouth threw expectations out the window, shocking Harvard and the Cambridge crowd for a 4-1 win. Pulling Madsen with over five minutes to go in regulation gave the Crimson its sole tally.
“We have to take a look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, what kind of effort is it going to take for us to have success?’” said coach Donato after the loss.
If there was to be a turnaround for Harvard, it would have to be quick. The next day, the Crimson and the Big Green returned to Bright-Landry for Game 2 of the series. A loss meant the visitors would move on to the ECAC semifinals, and Harvard’s season would be over. With it would end the careers of one of the winningest senior classes in Crimson history. The seniors had been to Lake Placid every year so far with Harvard.
“After the Friday night loss to Dartmouth, I couldn’t really sleep that night,” said Horton after the series had been won. “The next morning, I woke up…probably the most dialed-in I have ever been for a hockey game in my life.”
That weekend, the Crimson regrouped for two straight wins and a series victory. The next week at Lake Placid, with overtime ahead, the seniors were once again staring at what could be the end of the line. The next goal could end the 2017-2018 season.
As the extra frame began, Harvard stuck to its game, holding onto possession and cycling the puck in the offensive zone. Floodstrand nearly beat Kielly with a wraparound less than a minute into play, forcing the net-minder to go post to post and keep the puck out. But after the initial surge, the teams reverted to caution, aware that one mistake would decide the game.
The tide turned, though, after a neutral-zone giveaway. Donato, the last player any opponent would want turn the puck over to, cleaned up the loose change and sped into the Clarkson zone. Though Kielly saved his shot, the Crimson had several more chances, and Baughman saw his drive ring off the post. For a long stretch, aside from an Egle breakaway, you could be forgiven for thinking the game was being played on only half of the Olympic-sized ice.
"The way it ended...it was almost like, 'This didn't happen. That's not real,'" tri-captain forward Jake Horton said.
But the Golden Knights withstood Harvard’s pressure as the clock ticked past the halfway mark. On a rush, Brosseau carried the puck into the Crimson’s zone, finding Sturm’s tape. Sturm, flying down the right side, passed behind himself to Rempal, the trailer coming down the middle. And Rempal went top-shelf on Madsen, closing Harvard’s window of opportunity.
“The way it ended...it was almost like, ‘This didn’t happen. That’s not real,’” Horton said. “I remember sitting at the hotel after the game with my mom, and staring blankly, like, ‘how?’ That’s all I could keep saying to myself. Just, ‘how did that happen?’”
—Staff writer Stuti R. Telidevara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StutiTelidevara.