ALBANY, N.Y.—It came full circle here last night.
Same championship game. Same end of the ice. Same time remaining.
Just one year later. And so very 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 Brendan Bernakevitch just under the crossbar, delivering Harvard’s seventh ECAC title with a pulsating, come-from-behind 4-2 win over 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, will play in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, the program’s longest such streak since reaching five straight from 1985-1989. The pairings will be announced this afternoon at 2:30 on ESPN2. The Crimson (18-14-3) will likely play Boston College or Maine in the first round, in either the Northeast (Manchester, N.H.) or East (Albany) regional.
All of this—the ECAC title, an NCAA berth, success in general—seemed such a distant possibility a month ago, with Harvard performing well below preseason expectations at 9-13-2.
But this team shoved all that into the past when the ECAC tournament began, by sweeping Vermont and Brown, then squeezing out a 2-1 semifinal victory over Dartmouth before claiming a second Whitelaw Trophy in three years for the first time in school history.
Fitting that it came here in Albany, where almost exactly six months ago, the Crimson was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite at ECAC media day, before stumbling to a sixth-place finish.
It was a disappointing regular season in every respect. The only thing that could rectify it belonged to Harvard by the end of the night.
“These guys deserve a championship,” Smith 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.