For the Harvard men’s hockey team, the long and winding road to Lake Placid ended in atypical fashion Saturday night: wide and straight.
On the strength of a season-high eight goals, the No. 12/12 Crimson unceremoniously dismissed Rensselaer in Game 2 of the ECAC tournament quarterfinals at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, 8-2, clinching a spot in the conference’s final four in the process.
After yielding a 2-1 lead to the Engineers (18-15-7, 8-7-7 ECAC) late in the first period, the Crimson (18-9-4, 12-6-4) scored seven unanswered goals, including two from co-captain Jimmy Vesey. Harvard goaltender Merrick Madsen recorded 37 saves, one shy of his career high. A year removed from its 2015 tournament triumph in Lake Placid, the Crimson will return to the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena next weekend with a shot at a title defense.
So far, that defense has not been easy. Saturday’s final score belied a gritty series that featured standout play in one net and bad luck in the other.
For Harvard, Madsen produced a series of acrobatic and disciplined stops while the game was still in doubt, frustrating the visitors in their final push to extend their season.
“I thought Merrick Madsen was unbelievable,” RPI coach Seth Appert said. “He was the difference tonight. As crazy as that sounds in a game like that, that game could have easily been 4-4, 5-4 us after two periods.”
Meanwhile, the Engineers’ chances to extend their season took a hit before the opening draw, as Appert opted to start freshman goaltender Cam Hackett in place of senior star Jason Kasdorf. Appert revealed following the game that Kasdorf had sustained a groin injury in a Friday morning skate prior to the first game of the series.
Although Hackett had proved to be a serviceable starter in Kasdorf’s absence earlier in the season, the freshman struggled Saturday, yielding the game’s first goal on an unlikely close-angle attempt by Harvard sophomore Jake Horton at 15:02 in the first period. Defensemen Clay Anderson and Brayden Jaw also beat Hackett with outside shots for their third and second goals of the season, respectively.
Appert considered Saturday an unsavory end to a series that seemed to be within his team’s grasp, despite the final goal-differential.
“I thought we played our rear ends off,” Appert said. “I thought we were really good. I thought we carried the play and I thought we had the better scoring chances. I thought we were great…. It’s just a tough situation for [Hackett] to walk into.”
Playing in his final game at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, Vesey highlighted a four-goal third period with two unassisted strikes.
The Hobey Baker hopeful scored an innocent-looking shot from the left faceoff dot just 15 seconds into the final frame to extend Harvard’s lead to 5-2. Thirteen minutes later, he created a breakaway off a turnover in the neutral zone before finishing five-hole.
The goals move Vesey into sole possession of fifth-place on Harvard’s all time goal-scoring list at 79.
“I think it was a fitting way to go out,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “It was a fitting way for the people here in attendance to see one of the great Harvard players play his last home game here.”
RPI’s only lead of the series lasted less than 60 seconds in the midst of a goal-scoring blitz late in the first period.
Just over a minute after Horton’s goal, junior Riley Bourbonnais provided a controversial tying mark after the Engineers gained a step on the Crimson with a quick line change. The goal stood following an official review for too many men on the ice, allowing the visitors to take the lead 23 seconds later with a goal from freshman Jesper Ohrvall.
The one-two punch did little to knock the Crimson off balance.
Vesey found freshman defenseman Viktor Dombrovskiy with a feed up the slot to even the score at 17:43 in the period. Out of the break, Sean Malone beat Hackett glove-side off a drop pass from Jaw at 1:35 in the second period, and Anderson provided the first insurance marker with a quick wrist shot from the right faceoff dot at 9:26.
The two-goal lead held into the third after officials waved off a potential Engineers strike in the second period. Following Vesey’s goals, Jaw converted a slapshot on a power play with under four minutes to play, and freshman Ryan Donato finished on a two-on-one with classmate Michael Floodstrand a minute later.
With the sweep, the Crimson will arrive in Lake Placid with its NCAA tournament hopes relatively unscathed, although sophomore defenseman Wiley Sherman left Saturday’s game early with an upper body injury. Currently sitting 11th in the Pairwise rankings, Harvard will face St. Lawrence or Cornell in single-elimination play Friday, pending the result of the Quinnipiac-Cornell series, which concludes Sunday.
—Staff writer Michael D. Ledecky can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mdledecky.
—Crimson staff writer Michael D. Ledecky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mdledecky.