LAKE PLACID - There wasn't the usual tradition of sticks, gloves and helmets flying jubilantly into the air Saturday when Harvard conquered Cornell to claim the ECAC crown at the Olympic Center.
With a 10th ECAC men's ice hockey title in their hands, it seemed like the Crimson had already set their sights on a trip to the NCAA tournament well before leaving the ice at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena after a convincing 4-1 victory over the Big Red.
But despite a smile-filled but subdued celebration, Harvard sophomore Ryan Donato and his teammates were very happy to come out on top to win the Crimson's second ECAC title in three straight trips to the championship game in Lake Placid.
"We've been winning a lot of championships and feeling pretty good," said Donato, who scored twice for the Crimson in the game. "I think if one guy started to throw his equipment everybody else would. We're all really really excited."
"This senior class has played in three championship games in a row, and now successful in two of them, and obviously we haven't had that type of success in the NCAA tournament," said Ted Donato, Harvard's head coach who watched both his team and his son Ryan shine on Saturday. "This is a group that's been very focused all year. They're incredibly excited to win but they know there's more to play for. As a coach, when your leaders and your best players are thinking along those lines, it's a great luxury."
All three games in this year's ECAC tournament ended in 4-1 scores, and in the final, Harvard had the victory well in hand after surging out to a 4-0 lead. The Crimson scored a goal in each of the first and second periods and then tacked on two more to take control before Cornell ended the shutout bid of goalie Merrick Madsen when Jeff Malott poked home a puck in the closing minutes of the game. Madsen, a junior, finished with 25 saves on the way to being named the tournament's most outstanding player.
Luke Esposito and Michael Floodstrand also scored single goals in a contest that saw Harvard go 2-for-4 with a man advantage. Harvard finished with a 36-26 edge in shots on goal, including a 13-7 margin in the opening period.
After coming up empty on their first power-play opportunity, the Crimson made good on their second chance to go up 1-0 at the 14:41 mark when Donato wristed a shot past Big Red goalie Mitch Gillam, who was being pestered by Donato's linemate Alexander Kerfoot, who assisted on the goal along with Adam Fox.
Harvard's second line, which has accumulated more points that its first forward trio this season, combined for the game's next goal, with Luke Esposito scoring off assists from Sean Malone and Tyler Moy to give the Crimson a 2-0 lead with 3:52 remaining in the second period.
Trailing by a pair of goals, Cornell generated a huge push as the second dwindled, but was unable to score, despite being on the power play for the final 1:29 of the period. After surviving the Big Red onslaught, the Crimson roared back in a third period when they out shot Harvard 14-6 and found the back of the net twice. Floodstrand scored first for the Crimson, burying his lone goal of the season at the 3:01 mark for a 3-0 advantage on a play where the puck took a tricky bounce off the back boards and onto the stick of the sophomore, who then fired the puck into an open net.
Donato then followed with his second, netting a power-play goal with 9:50 left on the clock for Harvard's fourth and final goal of the game.
With only pride left to play for, as well as some possible momentum heading into the NCAA tournament, the Big Red finally buried a puck when Malott put a shot through traffic past Madsen with 1:17 remaining to make the score a 4-1 final.
Cornell head coach Mike Schafer summed up Saturday's game simply as one team putting pucks in the net when they had to.
"The bottom line is they capitalized on their scoring chances and we didn't," said Schafer, whose Big Red now heads into the NCAA playoffs with and at-large big and a 21-8-5 record. "We had great opportunities. The game can be cruel at times. We hit a post, had a back door that we fanned on, their kid made a couple great saves, and then they go down, fire one in, it hits the stanchion, pops right out and it's 3-0, game over."
The win was a school record 14th straight for Harvard, which is unbeaten in its last 16 games and has improved to 26-5-2 overall. The Crimson headed into Lake Placid ranked second nationally in the USCHO.com poll, and they earned the top seed in the East for the NCAA Division I tournament. They'll start their hopeful run on Friday in Providence, Rhode Island when they take on the 14th seed Providence Friars, who are 22-11-5. The two teams have not played each other since 1984.
Cornell, which dropped to 21-8-5, moves onto the Northeast Regional in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Big Red is the 11th seed and squares off against Hockey East champion Umass Lowell (26-10-3) in opening round action Saturday.
Harvard 4, Cornell 1
1. H, Donato (Fox, Kerfoot), 14:41, pp.
2. H, Esposito (Malone, Moy), 16:08.
3. H, Floodstrand (Sherman, Marino), 3:01; 4. H, Donato (Fox, Moy), 11:10, pp; 5. C, Malott (Weidner), 18:43.
Shots on goal: Harvard 36, Cornell 26.
Saves: H, Madsen 25, C. Gillam 32.