Beautiful, Imperfect and Cruel
Duluth Won, Harvard Lost, Only 1 Deserved its Fate
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CHICAGO There's no overcoming one of the few constants that's always defined hockey. It's beautiful and physical and fickle and just plain mean sometimes. But every close game comes down to one moment where the puck decides to go one way instead of another.
Players create these chances, of course, but the game doesn't always cooperate. When it does, the victor gets praised. They're resilient. They're experienced. They're tough. The loser, as it goes, can't finish, lacked big game experience or wasn't mentally tough enough.
Often, it just comes down to a bit of luck. Players create the chances. They don't always decide their own fate.
In Thursday's first national semifinal, 59 minutes passed before either team made the kind of play that ends another's season. One team, Minnesota Duluth, got a bounce. Another, Harvard, got a clank. The Bulldogs' 2-1 win earned them a place in Saturday's national title game. UMD's first since 2011.
"When you play games like this, it's everything you work for all season," UMD senior Willie Raskob said. "Harvard wasn't on the right side of the puck tonight, but they're an amazing team. They deserved it as much as we did. It was an amazing game. It could've gone either way. The crossbar at the end. The hockey gods were on our side tonight."
UMD's Alex Iafallo tipped in the game-winning goal with 26.6 seconds left in regulation. The marker came moments after the Bulldogs won a desperate battle for the puck, and Raskob waited and waited and waited and held on just long enough to find Iafallo streaking toward the net with his stick pointed toward Saturday.
"We do it in practice all the time," Iafallo said. "I just kind of thought 'just get to the net.' Raskob made a good pass. Why not shoot it? Worked out well."
Harvard goaltender Merrick Madsen, the steadying force behind the Crimson's run to the program's first Frozen Four in 28 years, got just enough pad on Iafallo's deflection to make it hurt even more. Another quarter of inch, and it's a save. He made 36 on the night. He needed 37.
"The puck moved from left to right in front of me over to ... I don't know who," Madsen said. "It was kind of a 2-on-1. Clay (Anderson) was back there with me. I got squared up. I saw the pass go over. I just tried to get my pad on it. If anything, I think I overslid a bit. I thought I got it. It wasn't enough."
Hockey's a game decided by inches all right. UMD created a break, and the puck did the rest. Not many other teams have looked every bit the national title contender Duluth has all season. The Bulldogs deserved to be here. They put themselves in position to create a break and deserved the goal they got.
Raskob's play to set Iafallo up is an example of the brilliant balance of skill and experience that made Duluth the formidable team it was all season. Iafallo's awareness to head to the net and skill to direct the puck perfectly are two more. The whole world waited for Raskob to shoot when he corralled the puck. Iafallo knew a pass was coming.
"Al and I have done it in practice a million times," Raskob said. "The exact same pass. He came out and fronted. I don't think I want to be shooting that puck. I want the puck on his stick."
Duluth advanced because of its preparation, skill and a little bit of good fortune. Harvard nearly equalized because of its own.
Harvard coach Ted Donato called a timeout. His team regrouped. Following a faceoff in the UMD end, which came after an icing, the Crimson revealed the same traits. They won a faceoff, won a battle, made a play and set up the kind of look that coaches have in mind when they're scribbling on their clipboards.
Luke Esposito controlled a centering pass, all alone in the high slot, and faked just enough to draw UMD goaltender Hunter Miska out. The shot sailed just over the goaltender's shoulder. Harvard's season had ended before it was quite clear what happened.
Esposito's shot beat Miska but found crossbar instead of nylon. Two other Crimson shots did the same.
One last race ended with the puck skidding out to center ice while the UMD players watched the clock tick even further toward a championship.
"It was heartbreaking when (Duluth) scored that goal with 26 seconds left," Harvard senior Alexander Kerfoot said. "Everything happened so fast. We had opportunities to score there at the end. We hit a couple posts. We took it to them. Just wasn't meant to be."
"The end was so sudden with us hitting the post three times there in the last 25 seconds," Donato said. "It's really hard to describe."
For 59 minutes, each team played precisely as it hoped. They created chances. They made saves. The odd mistake came. Each club capitalized once — Tyler Moy and Joey Anderson traded first-period goals.
Then, the 60th minute came.
"As the game wears on, we play a really good style that allows us to maintain our game," Anderson said. "We're able to finish chances when we get them. That's been the way we've done it."
Both teams made plays. Both teams fought, pushed and shoved for every inch they needed to take that last mile. Duluth won out in the end. Iafallo scored the winner and sent his team on to Saturday's title game. It was hockey, though, the cruel, beautiful and imperfect game so often decided by the slightest of margins, that picked the winner on Thursday night.