They trailed 2-1 in the third and deciding game of the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals. Yale coach Keith Allain’s 1-2-2 defensive scheme was dominating the contest and the clock showed less than four minutes remaining. Harvard’s Jim Vesey, the NCAA’s leading scorer, had been shut down for the second night in a row by Yale’s brilliant defenseman Rob O’Gara. With their season on death row, the Crimson needed a hero, desperately.
Enter Pat McNally.
Playing despite being written off for the season with a devastating knee injury, McNally chased the attack up ice, caught a drop pass, and buried a 20-foot wrist shot to send knot the game. Two periods later he assisted on the series-winner in double overtime, and Harvard has never looked back.
That offensive flurry would simply be business as usual for McNally, a puck-rushing defenseman who hates being left out of any offensive foray, if not for the fact that his season was considered over after mangling his knee versus Cornell in January. He was hoping against hope to get back on the ice for the Frozen Four in April, until he saw that Harvard was playing their blood rival in the second round of the ECAC playoffs.
“We’re playing Yale in the second round, even if it wasn’t the best time, there is no way I wouldn’t have been trying to play. It sucked getting injured at Cornell. I just never gave up hope, getting better every day, little bit by little bit. I gotta thank my trainer Chad (Krawiec), he was with me every day, 3 hours, getting my leg working.”
The Yale series was even more dramatic for McNally, playing against his childhood buddy O’Gara, the guy he won a New England prep championship with in 2011 for Milton academy in Boston. McNally, a Vancouver pick in 2010, and O’Gara watched the Stanley Cup Finals together, a week later Rob was drafted by the Bruins. Their bond has never wavered despite the hockey gods transposing them from championship teammates to arch enemies.
“I’ve known Rob since I was eight years old. He was a great kid, great player. Defensive shut down, he did a great job. Jimmy Vesey’s one of the best players in the country, we think he’s the best, but he (O’Gara) did a great job matching up with him all weekend.” The handshake line was bittersweet. “I just told him he played a great series, gave him a hug. I’m sure I’ll see him soon.” O’Gara texted McNally after the game, calling him a “Warrior.”
The NHLPA has outlawed playing playoff games on three consecutive days to preserve player bodies, but McNally survived the three-game weekend test versus Yale, willing himself to get back on the ice. Then it was on to Lake Placid where he helped lead the Crimson to the ECAC championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. McNally scored the winning goal in the title game and was named to the All-Tournament team. His supreme effort to get back in lineup was not lost on head coach Ted Donato, a 13-year NHL veteran.
“I know Pat, he came back to win the championship, and he knew that he could be a big part of it, and certainly he was. We have a lot of unselfish players that put the team first. Pat unselfishly dedicated himself to try and come back to help his teammates.”
In yet another strange twist, McNally’s success actually helped out his buddy O’Gara and the rival Bulldogs. Due to the fickle NCAA computer, Harvard’s win over Colgate in the ECAC final cleared the way for Yale to slide in to the last slot in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs open against Jack Eichel’s B.U. Terriers in the Northeast Regional, while McNally and the Crimson head out to the Midwest Regional with an expected matchup against top ranked Minnesota State.
Harvard has the USA’s hottest goal scorer in Vesey, and in McNally they have a rover who is nearly impossible to defend. Harvard’s future might very well hinge on the lower body of Pat McNally.
“Every shift I felt like I was getting stronger. I hope that trend continues. One of the reasons I decided to push myself and try and come back was because I knew that the group of guys we had could make a run. I just wanted to be a part of it and help out as much as I could. I felt like if I got back somewhat near 100% that I would be able to do that, obviously its coming to fruition, it’s incredible.”
Watch the 2015 NCAA Men’s Division I ice hockey championship beginning March 27th.