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Harvard suffers heartbreaking Frozen Four loss following wild finish

04.06.17 at 9:37 pm ET
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Seniors Luke Esposito and Tyler Moy comfort each other after Thursday's Frozen Four loss. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Seniors Luke Esposito and Tyler Moy comfort each other after Thursday’s Frozen Four loss. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Harvard’s first Frozen Four game in 23 years was about as thrilling a contest as you’ll get. No, there wasn’t a lot of scoring. But there were plenty of chances, some great saves, some big hits and a consistently fast pace. Oh, and there was a wild finish that featured a go-ahead goal and two shots off the crossbar all in the game’s final 27 seconds.

Unfortunately for the Crimson, they ended up on the wrong side of that craziness and lost to Minnesota-Duluth, 2-1. Thursday’s defeat marks a heartbreaking end to a great season for Harvard, one that saw it win its first Beanpot since 1993, its first ECAC regular-season title since 1994 and its second ECAC tournament title in the last three years. The Crimson had won 16 straight games prior to Thursday.

Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth combined for 78 shots on goal in the game, with each team registering at least 10 in all three periods. Both goalies were terrific, as Harvard’s Merrick Madsen made 36 saves while UMD’s Hunter Miska stopped 39 shots.

Both teams had chances throughout the third period to break the 1-1 deadlock, but it took until the final minute for it to finally happen. After Harvard couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone, Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Willie Raskob set up Alex Iafallo for a redirect in the slot that just squeaked through Madsen’s legs with 26.6 seconds left in regulation.

The Crimson didn’t give up, though, and came oh so close to forcing overtime. Following an offensive-zone draw with 19.9 seconds left, Sean Malone flipped a rebound over Miska, but it skipped off the crossbar. That wouldn’t be the last pipe. A few seconds later, Luke Esposito got a golden look from the slot, but his shot deflected off Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Nick Wolff and rang the crossbar. The Bulldogs cleared the puck and that was it.

Minnesota-Duluth will face the winner of Thursday’s second semifinal between Denver and Notre Dame in Saturday night’s national championship game.

Harvard appeared to take a 2-1 lead 5:41 into the third when Malone banged the puck in during a scrum in front, but the referee had blown his whistle after losing sight of the puck and the no-goal call was upheld after review.

A few minutes later, the Bulldogs had a great chance to take the lead when they forced a turnover on Harvard’s breakout, sending Adam Johnson in 1-on-1. After stepping around a defenseman, he tried to jam a shot in at the near post, but Madsen held his ground and made one of his biggest saves of the night.

The first period was a back-and-forth, fast-paced, physical affair that crossed into undisciplined play on a few occasions. Both teams were fortunate to avoid major penalties, as Harvard’s Luke Esposito (boarding) and Minnesota-Duluth’s Wolff (charging) both threw hits that could’ve easily been game misconducts — and probably would’ve been if this were the regular season — but they were called two-minute minors instead.

The Crimson ended up with three power plays in the opening frame. They couldn’t capitalize on their first two despite some good looks, but they finally converted on the third try and took a 1-0 lead with five minutes left in the period when Alexander Kerfoot made a great cross-slot pass to set up Tyler Moy for his fourth goal in three NCAA tournament games.

The lead didn’t last long, though. Minnesota-Duluth responded nicely and controlled play late in the period, and the Bulldogs tied the game with 1:36 to go when Dominic Toninato won an offensive-zone faceoff back to Joey Anderson, who beat Madsen with a quick shot through traffic.

The Bulldogs’ momentum carried over to the second, as they came storming out with 10 shots on goal in the first five minutes of the period. Madsen, who was excellent throughout the second half of the season, stood tall, though, with his best save coming when he flashed the glove on a point-blank chance from Anderson.

The game came to a virtual standstill through the middle part of the period, as the teams went nearly nine minutes without a single shot on goal. But then it was the Crimson’s turn to take charge, as they outshot UMD 8-3 over the period’s final seven minutes. They went to the power play with 3:49 left in the period and should’ve gotten an extended 5-on-3 after Kerfoot was clearly tripped on a rush toward the net, but the refs somehow didn’t call it. The teams ended up heading to the third still tied 1-1.

The loss marked the final game for Harvard’s large senior class, which features seven players who were in the lineup Thursday night, including Kerfoot, Moy, Malone and Esposito — four of the team’s top six scorers this season.

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-During the game, John Connolly of the Boston Herald reported that Boston is expected to be awarded the 2021 Frozen Four. Boston last hosted college hockey’s championship in 2015, when Providence topped Boston University in the title game.

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