Had Cornell drawn up the perfect blueprint to beat Harvard in Friday’s ECAC semifinal matchup, an ugly, grind-it-out slugfest is precisely how it would have looked.
But even playing an unfamiliar style and with their offensive weapons far from their best, the Crimson prevailed. Star winger Alex Laferriere broke a scoreless deadlock 4:28 into overtime to give second-seeded Harvard a 1-0 win over No. 3 Cornell at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“What you saw was two teams that know defense wins this time of year,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato. “I thought both teams really managed the puck, and we have a ton of respect for Cornell.”
Joe Miller and Baker Shore assisted on the goal. Mitchell Gibson made 15 saves to earn the shutout.
The Crimson (24-6-2) will play No. 5 Colgate in the championship game Saturday night (7:30). The Raiders were 2-1 winners over Quinnipiac in double overtime in the first semifinal.
LAFERRIERE CALLED GAME 🎯— Harvard Men's Hockey (@HarvardMHockey) March 18, 2023
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Though both Harvard and Cornell were near the top of the league’s regular-season standings for a reason, they excel with vastly different approaches. Entering Friday, the Big Red had allowed no more than one goal in each of their previous five games, while the Crimson had netted at least four goals in five of six games.
Harvard’s high-flying offense entered Friday tied for third nationally at 3.9 goals per game, and had been held to under two goals just four times this season. The Crimson lost all four of those games.
But the Big Red’s 20.3 shots allowed per game is the lowest mark in the country, and their veteran defense gave Harvard’s usually-explosive offense fits both breaking out in transition and generating consistent offensive zone time.
Though the shots on goal ended 25-15 in favor of the Crimson, the relatively low totals on both sides best suited Cornell’s preferred style — even if the Big Red offense similarly struggled to find a rhythm on the other end. Yet finding different ways to win games is crucial for a Harvard squad with deep NCAA tournament aspirations, one that will likely need to overcome more defenses just as potent as Cornell’s to reach its goals.
“As a group, we talk about teams that win at the end of the year have to be able to win a 1-0 game just as much as a 7-6 game,” Donato said.
The Big Red had their share of chances as well, though they never made All-ECAC goalie Gibson look uncomfortable in his crease. He had to make just two saves in a quiet first period and then settled into a groove.
“As the game went on, I certainly got a better feel for it,” Gibson said. “I had a better feel going into the second and third, as well as overtime. You prefer a nice steady stream, but you [have to] be ready for anything.”
Harvard was the better team in the third period, but none of its transition rushes produced strong scoring chances. Then, in overtime, fellow forward Shore beautifully flicked a pass across to Laferriere for the game-ender.
“I think everybody in the building thought Baker was going to shoot,” Laferriere said. “So I kind of just slipped back door.”
Harvard will look to repeat as ECAC tournament champions for the first time in program history. A year ago, the Crimson needed to secure title to reach the NCAA Tournament. This time around, the stakes won’t be quite as high, since Harvard is securely in the NCAA field regardless of Saturday’s result.
But the momentum and success Donato’s team, which has won seven in a row, continues to build bodes well for the team’s quest for a second Frozen Four appearance since 1994.