Frozen Four: Harvard ousted on last-minute goal, Minnesota-Duluth to final

In which we recap the day’s events in the NCAA tournament.

Minnesota-Duluth is the best team Harvard has played all year. The ECAC isn’t exactly a tough league, and the Crimson’s NCAA tournament opponents weren’t exactly the most skilled in the field.

So this was a big test.

Results-wise, you can say the Bulldogs were harsh administrators.

Alex Iafallo, the best Duluth player all season, scored with just 26.6 seconds left in a heavy game that had been deadlocked for more than 40 minutes. The Bulldogs won by a hair, 2-1, to advance to the national final on Saturday night.

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“We made a play at the end to win,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “But certainly exciting for our team and our program to be playing on Saturday night. And looking forward to see who we play. But it’s kind of been our M.O. all year. Another tight game. Another one-goal hockey game. And just real exciting to be moving on.

It was exactly the kind of play Duluth had been pulling off all year.

“We kept it in there at the blue line,” Iafallo shrugged. “And that was pretty much the key to the goal. And Raskob made a good play. We do it in practice all the time. So simple things like that, getting the puck to the net. Just had to shovel it in.”

But the fact that Harvard played this well in a game totally unlike their typical style, and ended up losing by a single goal to the second-best team in the country, showed that any doubts about their quality had to be deposited in the nearest trash bin. Not that it mattered, at the end of the day. There are winners and losers in this sport.

Certainly, Duluth was in their comfort zone to a certain extent. The vast majority was played with the game tied (Harvard led for a whopping 3 minutes and 24 seconds); and the Bulldogs went to overtime on 12 occasions this season, once every three games or so, including in both games at the regionals. They also improved to 14-4 in one-goal games.

Meanwhile, Harvard has basically blown out every opponent for two and a half months.

“I think pretty much every bit of ice was hard to get out there,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato. “I give Minnesota-Duluth a lot of credit for that. I thought neither team really had a lot of zone time. I think both teams had some good chances. But certainly in the first half of the game, I don’t think we were able to get out of our zone as cleanly as we would have liked and establish some offensive zone play.”

These teams have contrasting styles, so it was interesting to see who would set the tone. Then there were three penalties in first eight minutes, the multiple big hits. Well, that looks a lot like physical hockey. This was, perhaps, not to Harvard’s liking, as they’re a team built on speed and skill moreso that Duluth, which is one of the bigger, more physical teams in the country. So to that extent you could easily argue the Bulldogs were dictating terms, but in doing so they played a dangerous game.

Give a team like Harvard, with its fourth-ranked power play (26.5 percent), and you are simply asking to concede. The Crimson have the personnel to generate good looks and convert them; guys like Adam Fox and Alex Kerfoot can move the puck around at top speeds. Tyler Moy and Ryan Donato shoot the puck with lethality in mind.

The good news, for the time being, was that Duluth’s lockdown defense didn’t give Harvard much space on those man advantages, and mostly kept them away from Hunter Miska (39 saves).

That’s not to say that, at 5-on-5, things weren’t going well for the Bulldogs. They set up their cycle on multiple occasions and got several good looks. Better looks, in fact, than what Harvard generated even with the power plays.

But then Kyle Osterberg — the smallest player on UMD’s titanous roster at just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds — took a dumb boarding penalty away from the play and 185 feet from his own net, and hey look at that, Harvard went up through a low-angle Moy goal just 35 seconds later.

“You gotta guard a little bit because obviously their power play is very good, as you saw,” Sandelin said. “They’re going in at 26, 27 percent. And like any power play that’s good you don’t want to give them too many opportunities.”

Just before the end of the first period, though, Duluth’s top line evened the score. Joey Anderson snuck a shot through traffic right off a draw and just completely caught Merrick Madsen (36 saves) by surprise. It was the first defensive-zone draw the Crimson lost in the opening 18:36, and it cost them dearly.

“I just like how we were playing,” Sandelin said. “I think our intensity level was good. We had some real good time in the offensive zone. But yet we hadn’t scored. So anytime you get a goal later in a period, you know, it certainly gave us a boost.”

Shots were 14-13 Harvard in the first, but quality chances weren’t even close. It was all Bulldogs; Harvard played from the perimeter at 5-on-5. But again, you can’t take three penalties against anyone, let alone this team. So conditions seemed appropriate, all things considered.

That’s when Duluth took over. They drew a power play, and proceeded to badly outshoot the Crimson for pretty much the entire second period, and shots in the middle 20 ended up 13-10 in the Bulldogs’ favor, and it was only that close because of a late Crimson power play.

The hottest team in the nation suddenly had no answers whatsoever. Speedy Harvard were getting beat to 50-50 pucks left and right, and weren’t getting any traction in the neutral zone. Save for a two-shift flurry late in the period (including hitting a post) and that fourth Harvard power play, Miska could have gotten out a crossword and made some pretty good progress.

At the other end, Madsen continued his inhuman run of success, single-handedly keeping his team in the game.

“I thought we were good defensively 5-on-5,” Donato said. “But they had a few very good chances and I thought Merrick looked on. I think he gave the bench a lot of confidence and just know when you play a team like that, you know, they played so many close games and it was going to be a bounce either way.”

The going in the third period was a little slower, but things were beginning to tip in Harvard’s favor. Sean Malone appeared to score a goal at 5:41 of the third, but the puck clearly went in after the whistle. But more to the point, it was indicative of Harvard’s willingness — and surprising ability — to change its approach on the fly. They were getting to the net consistently for the first time all night, and putting together strong shifts, consecutively.

Then Duluth pushed back, briefly, and the game settled once again into more of a deadlock. Call it conservatism. Call it two evenly matched teams (Harvard’s irresistible force to UMD’s immovable object). Call it everyone getting a bit gun-shy for fear of being the guy who takes a penalty late in a tied national semifinal.

But that Duluth cycle, so strong all year, was what paid off in the end. They got the puck in deep, won board battles, knocked down a few clear attempts, and worked the puck to the weak side. Willie Raskob picked up a Joey Anderson pass in plenty of space, but wisely identified Iafallo streaking ahead Luke Esposito.

Simple pass, simple tip, five-hole goal.

Harvard pushed back at the death, generating two golden chances with a 6-on-5, including an Esposito shot off the post with about four seconds left from prime scoring real estate: right between the hashmarks.

Duluth, somehow, silenced the loudest offense in the country and ground out yet another win.

“We play in a very difficult league,” Sandelin said. “So every weekend you go in thinking those are the types of games you’re going to be in. And very seldom are there blowouts. And it can change from one night to the next.”

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.