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Harvard staves off furious Air Force comeback to earn trip to Frozen Four

Matt Dewkett/SB Nation

PROVIDENCE -- Air Force sure gave Harvard its best shot Saturday night at Dunkin' Donuts Center.

But, the ECAC champions' balanced attack proved to be too much.

The third-seeded Falcons scored two unanswered goals in the second period, but the Crimson started scoring early and held on for a 3-2 decision in the East Regional Final, punching its first Frozen Four ticket since 1994.

"I thought it was a tremendous hockey game," Harvard head coach Ted Donato said after his team improved to 28-5-2 on the season, extending its unbeaten streak to 18 games. "Air Force kept coming and coming, and I think both teams played well enough to win tonight. We're happy to move on, and I'm very proud of my guys, but I want to give Air Force their due credit."

Senior Tyler Moy scored the game-winning goal at 9:50 of the second period, following up scores from sophomores Viktor Dombrovskiy and Ryan Donato split between the first two frames.

It was Harvard's 23rd win this season when leading after two periods, and makes the Crimson one of the nation's final four college hockey-playing teams as a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1983.

"I think our guys wanted more. The Frozen Four is something that our group aspired to, and now that we've accomplished that, our sights are set on continuing to win," Donato said. "I liked our response (to Air Force's goals), and we came out in the third and managed the puck well."

The Crimson used outstanding team speed to get a leg up in the first period as Dombrovskiy netted the game’s first goal at 9:54, beating Air Force’s Shane Starrett with a shot from the point above the left circle.

After a 14-shot first period, sophomore Ryan Donato doubled the Crimson’s lead with a highlight reel goal 7:47 into the second. The younger Donato took a drop pass atop the right circle, cut around his defender in the low slot and slipped his team-leading 21st goal of the season past Starrett’s right-hand post.

One of Harvard’s eight seniors got into the scoring act at the 9:50 marker as Moy snuck a wrister home off classmate Alexander Kerfoot’s cross-ice pass from just inside the left circle.

It was just the 18th power-play goal Air Force surrendered this season, a mark that leads the nation.

"We have a really good power play as well," Kerfoot said. "We have a lot of confidence in our group. We have two different units, which makes it hard for teams to kill against us. I think we wanted to do a good job of moving the puck quickly and getting pucks on net."

Harvard looked to have the game well in its hand midway through the middle frame, but the Falcons used some timely offense to jump within a goal before intermission.

At 11:23, freshman Brady Tomlak got the Falcons on the board on a delayed penalty as he steamed down the left wing to follow up senior A.J. Reid’s shot from high in the slot at the top of Harvard junior Merrick Madsen’s crease.

Junior Jordan Himley brought the Falcons within a goal just 15 seconds later, catching the rebound from defenseman Phil Boje's point shot at the right crease.

"We've been doing a really good job responding to goals all year, so that kind of prepared us for those two bad bounces we got tonight," Harvard senior captain Devin Tringale said. "We have a bunch of older guys that do a really good job settling in when they get a couple goals. It's something we've done all year, and we did a good job tonight."

The Falcons held an 8-7 shot advantage in the final period, but Madsen stepped up big when the game's biggest moments came. Madsen finished the night with 27 saves.

Air Force finishes the season with a 27-10-5 record after winning a game in the national tournament for the first time since 2012 in its sixth NCAA appearance in 11 years.

"That Harvard team is a great team, and I think people around the country know that the guys in blue are a pretty good hockey team as well," Air Force head coach Frank Serratore said. "To be able to come back against a team like that, and we had some looks in the third period, it was terrific. I couldn't be prouder of our guys."