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BOSTON — Less than 24 hours after the New England Patriots electrified the region with the most stunning Super Bowl comeback in history and perhaps the most exciting win since the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey squad toppled the Russians, Harvard and Northeastern faced off in the Beanpot semifinal opener.
It was a tough act to follow.
And for half the game, the matchup tilted to the opposite end of the spectrum, a snooze-fest of tight checking and few opportunities. In the end, excitement prevailed, as did Harvard, holding off comeback-minded Northeastern, 4-3.
But for the first 30 minutes, the pairing showed why many viewed it as an undercard for the real adrenaline rush: Boston University vs. Boston College.
After all, despite the rotating schedule that changes first-round opponents every year, the championship has gone to BU or BC without exception since 1993. Small wonder that that marquee matchup got the choice 8 p.m. timeslot while Harvard-Northeastern was relegated to 5 p.m. and its attendant late-arriving crowds, leading to a sparsely populated building in the early going.
Nowhere near as bad as next Monday’s consolation game, but hardly the environment that gets the juices going, a point made by Harvard’s Alexander Kerfoot, a senior who has played in three consolations and four 5 p.m. first-rounders.
“It’ll be cool to come out for warmups and there will be more than seven people in the stands,” he said.
Ironically, a game that threatened to put the few fans who were watching to sleep–Harvard coach Ted Donato referred to it as “careful” hockey–eventually drew parallels to the Patriots’ Super Bowl stunner.
Kerfoot got the scoring going 13:50 into the second period with a tip of a Viktor Dombrovskiy shot from the point. Northeastern’s vaunted power play (second in the nation with a 27.39 percent conversion rate) evened the score with two minutes left in the frame.
But what set up the Super Bowl comparisons were three Harvard goals in the span of under five minutes, starting at 7:39 in the third. With the score 4-1 and the Huskies reeling, a Crimson win seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, the third in the sequence was a shorthanded goal, an especially disheartening blow to endure. This writer even tweeted “#turnoutthelights” because the party certainly seemed to be over for Northeastern.
As it had for the New England Patriots when they were down 28-3.
Instead, the Huskies began climbing back little more than a minute later with another power play goal, this one off the stick of Nolan Stevens. Then at 18:27, with the goalie pulled, Gaudette struck again, a goal that required a long video review.
Now the comparisons between Northeastern and the Patriots, and between Harvard and the Atlanta Falcons, screamed deja vu.
One goal down with 1:33 remaining. Who would be Northeastern’s Tom Brady? Would Harvard play the Falcons’ role to its bitter end?
“There was a lot of emotion and intensity, and it seemed like for the last 10 minutes there hadn’t been a whole lot that was going our way as far as reviews and calls,” Donato said. “So we just said, ‘We’re going to have to win the last minute and a half to win the hockey game. Let’s be ready to battle.'”
The Crimson seniors also spoke their piece.
“With the experience we have on our team, we have a lot of leaders to calm the nerves of everybody and just keep us moving forward,” Luke Esposito said. “When the [third] goal went to review, whether it was a goal or no goal, we were going to play the same way, and just finish off the last minute and a half.
“They pressured. That’s going to happen six-on-five.”
Arguably, Northeastern did more than pressure. One puck slid sideways, tantalizingly through the crease.
But Harvard’s lead held. That final touchdown with a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime never came.
Which means Harvard advances to next Monday’s championship game. There, Kerfoot will most certainly see, and hear, far more than seven people in the stands.