ALBANY, N.Y — Come back from three goals down? Done that. Pull the goalie trailing by two with four minutes to play? Nothing unusual.
The Harvard men’s hockey team is familiar with operating without a safety net and surviving.
“We’ve been in that situation a few times this year and been able to come back completely,” observed cocaptain Casey Dornbach.
And the Crimson nearly did it again in the NCAA regionals Thursday afternoon at MVP Arena against favored Minnesota State, climbing out of a 3-0 hole to give the top-seeded Mavericks a serious scare before falling, 4-3.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” said coach Ted Donato, whose resilient varsity (21-11-3) drew within one on Dornbach’s power-play goal at 16:29 with his cage empty and had the puck in the Mavericks’ corner when time expired.
“We stayed with it. The fact that we never gave up, the guys kept playing, that’s happened a few times coming down the stretch.”
The Crimson removed goalie Mitchell Gibson down, 3-0, with four minutes to play in their ECAC quarterfinal opener against Rensselaer, tied it up, and won in overtime. They were down to Clarkson after two periods in the semis and produced three unanswered tallies in the third. And they dispatched Quinnipiac, the regular-season champion, in overtime for their first title in five years.
So Minnesota State, the No. 2 overall seed in the 16-team field, knew that it would have to work for 60 minutes and maybe beyond.
“If there’s a guarantee you can get at this tournament it’s that it’s never easy,” said coach Mike Hastings, whose squad (36-5) Saturday night will face Notre Dame (28-11-0), which knocked out North Dakota (24-14-1), 2-1, Thursday night on Graham Slaggert’s power-play goal in overtime. “And tonight wasn’t easy. We knew it would be an incredible battle against Harvard and it was.”
After having last season wiped out because of the pandemic, the Crimson, who had two recruiting classes who’d never played a collegiate game, were delighted to be here. But that didn’t mean they were satisfied just to be here.
Harvard has qualified for the NCAAs in five of its last six completed seasons and reached the Frozen Four in 2017. The Crimson were here to win it. That said, it was a tall order against a Minnesota State bunch that had won 24 of its previous 25 games, the last 15 in a row.
It was taller still once the Mavericks went up, 3-0, after 22 minutes on goals by Connor Gregga, Reggie Lutz, and Brendan Furry.
“They lived up to their billing,” said Donato, whose group, the youngest in the tournament, was seeded 15th overall. “I thought they were a tremendous team.”
Had Maverick sharpshooter Julian Napravnik converted a penalty shot midway through the second period, the game likely would have been out of Harvard’s reach. But Gibson (36 saves) denied him and revived his teammates.
“The momentum went from our side to their side,” said Hastings. “And once they got momentum, they kept it.”
Sean Farrell got one goal back at 16:42, Alex Gaffney potted another at 17:30, and Harvard was back in business. Ondrej Pavel gave the Mavericks some breathing room with his high wrister six minutes into the third period, and they still led by two goals with less than six to play.
Then Nathan Smith, Minnesota State’s top gun, was whistled for tripping, Donato yanked Gibson with four minutes to play, and Dornbach made it a one-goal game again. Plenty of time for the Harvard Houdinis to devise another great escape.
And bad flashbacks for the Mavericks, who fell to Providence in the 2019 regionals after giving up two goals during a five-minute major and lost to St. Cloud with less than a minute to play in last year’s Frozen Four.
They were in no mood for a heartbreak trifecta.
“These things that hurt a lot you can learn quite a bit from,” said Hastings. “They seem to stick with you for a while.”
With their cage empty for the final two minutes, the Crimson went all-in, putting six men in the Minnesota State zone and playing billiards with the puck, looking for an opening in front. But the Mavericks refused to let them in.
“They were doing a good job of getting in lanes,” said Harvard cocaptain Nick Abruzzese. “They didn’t make it easy on us all night, and the last 20 seconds was a microcosm of that. Kudos to them.”
So Minnesota State stayed on the road to TD Garden, where it hopes to claim its first national crown two weekends hence. And Harvard, which has a dozen NHL draftees returning, began pondering the possibilities ahead.
“We have a lot to be proud of for how young we were and how many people probably wrote us off because of that,” mused Dornbach. “It shows where this program is going and the talent that we have. We fell short tonight, but it’s a good sign for the program going forward. "