LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Prior to Friday night’s ECAC semifinal bout between No. 9/9 Harvard and No. 17/- St. Lawrence, Crimson senior Kyle Criscuolo was honored as the conference’s Student Athlete of the Year. Therefore, it should surprise no one that the Harvard co-captain has a knack for using his head.
With the Crimson’s NCAA tournament hopes potentially hanging in the balance, senior Jimmy Vesey capitalized on his fellow co-captain’s biggest strength 2:18 into overtime. Darting up the right wing and skating around defenseman Eric Sweetman to position himself atop the slot, Vesey banked a powerful wrister off the chin of Criscuolo and into the back of the net to propel Harvard into Saturday night’s ECAC championship game.
“Exactly how we drew it up,” Vesey said.
The goal, Criscuolo’s eighth game-winner of the season, stood after multiple reviews, giving the Crimson (19-9-4, 12-6-4 ECAC) both a 2-1 victory and an opportunity to compete for its second straight ECAC title—this time against the once-top-ranked team in the nation, No. 2/2 Quinnipiac. Meanwhile, the season for the Saints (19-14-4, 11-8-3) in all likelihood has come to an end.
“I thought we deserved better tonight; we’re a very good team,” St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel said. “Of course, Jimmy’s going to make you pay if you don’t pay real careful attention to him. He scored their first goal and basically scored their second goal. As much as we tried to prepare for him, we still let him get to areas where he’s very dangerous.”
Vesey’s actual goal—a tap-in set up by senior Colin Blackwell a few feet in front of Saints goaltender Kyle Hayton—came less than a minute into the second period, representing all of Harvard's offense in regulation. But with sophomore goaltender Merrick Madsen saving every St. Lawrence shot that came his way, the co-captain’s 24th tally of the season was all the offense the Crimson would need to squeeze by.
That is, until Clay Anderson lent the Saints a helping hand. After a Gavin Bayreuther blast bounced up in the air in front of Madsen with 5:24 to go in regulation, Anderson tried to bat it out of danger with his hand. Instead, the junior defenseman wound up flinging the puck into the back of the net, right over the head of his goaltender.
Bayreuther received credit for Anderson's gaffe, which goes in the books as the sophomore's team-leading 12th goal of the year. The improbable equalizer came on the heels of a 14-1 St. Lawrence run in the shots on goal department—a stretch that saw rookie sensation Jacob Pritchard come inches from leveling the score on two separate occasions, just moments apart.
With 8:28 to go, Pritchard corralled a rebound along the end line and threw a difficult shot on net from the red paint. Madsen caught the puck under his arm, but after making the save, the sophomore leaned back toward his net, prompting the referees to review the play. But the call on the ice—no goal—would stand.
Immediately following the review, Pritchard was at it again, ripping a shot from the high slot that hit Madsen, then clipped a piece of the post. The rookie would finally get on the score sheet by way of an assist on the Bayreuther goal a few minutes later, extending his streak of consecutive games with at least a point to 13.
With Pritchard and company pressing hard in the final period of play, the Harvard defense spent much of the final frame on its heels, leaving Madsen to make 17 saves in 20 minutes. But the Saints' high-flying offense came to a skidding halt with 4:05 remaining when freshman Michael Laidley was whistled for boarding—the first penalty of the game.
After the game, Carvel described the call as “disturbing.”
“They almost decided the game, and that’s not their job,” he continued.
Only “almost.” Despite the Crimson's top power play unit being on the ice for the entire two minutes thanks to a Harvard timeout taken halfway through, St. Lawrence completed the crucial kill. But the shorthanded stretch led the Saints’ once-rolling offense to lose its steam, as St. Lawrence registered just two more shots for the rest of the game.
In the overtime period that followed, Vesey, Anderson, and junior center Alexander Kerfoot produced three shots on the doorstep one second after another that nearly wrapped up the game in the second minute of the extra frame. But ultimately it would be the Vesey-Criscuolo connection at 2:18 that sealed the deal.
While Madsen, who finished with 35 saves and wore the Crimson’s player of the game hat during the postgame press conference, was the main reason behind Harvard’s near-shutout, the Crimson’s defensive performance was made all the more impressive by the personnel, or more accurately the lack thereof, skating in front of him.
All eyes were on the Harvard blue line heading into the contest, as Wiley Sherman’s absence left the Crimson with little depth in the back. Aiming to fill a 6’7” void, freshman Adam Baughman moved up a pairing to play alongside senior Brayden Jaw; and sophomore Thomas Aiken, who entered the weekend with just seven career appearances under his belt, stepped in to play on the third pair.
Nonetheless, Harvard’s makeshift defensive unit held its own, forcing the Saints to settle for primarily outside shots and surrendering just a single goal to St. Lawrence for the second time in a row—this time on an Olympic-sized sheet.
“We certainly have some guys that are inexperienced back there,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “This was a great challenge against a team that comes real hard on the forecheck.”
The Crimson now shifts its attention to Quinnipiac, who defeated Dartmouth by a 3-1 margin in the first semifinal matchup of the night at Herb Brooks Arena. After beating St. Lawrence, Harvard is now effectively a lock to make the NCAA tournament, but the Crimson can secure its spot in the 16-team field with a win on Saturday.
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.