BEC' AND CALL: Tobe Provides Crimson With Viable Alternative

TOBE OR NOT TOBE
Lowell K. Chow

Justin Tobe improved to 2-0 in the net for the Crimson.

It’s always nice to know you have options, right? There’s something very, very scary about pinning all your hopes on one figure, one person, one player, and praying for dear life that nothing happens to him.

And if a hockey team, as it is often said, must be built from the goal out, then it’s certainly nice to know that you have more than one person who can do the job between the pipes.

A strong goaltender gives his team the confidence to find the back of the net and the knowledge that a one- or two-goal lead can and will stand up. A weaker goaltender provides his team with nothing but an uphill battle and pressure—rather than inspiration—to score. In some ways, for an offense to know that it must score four or five goals a night is the kiss of death.

In the past year, the Crimson (7-3-1, 5-3-1 ECAC) has come to depend entirely upon netminder Dov Grumet-Morris, a senior whose remarkable play between the pipes has been consistently solid, to say the least. In fact, Dov has stood on his head so many times to keep Harvard in games that his sprawling saves have become nearly routine.

Said Crimson coach Ted Donato’91 earlier this season: “It’s hard to start any conversation [about] any of our wins when you don’t talk about Dov Grumet-Morris, because he’s been stellar for us all year.”

So stellar, explained assistant captain Ryan Lannon before this season even began, that “He makes some saves that he just shouldn’t make, sometimes. Sometimes you find yourself shaking your head on the bench—you can’t believe that his body contorts the way that it does.”

And with a .928 save percentage that has translated into a 5-3-1 record, including wins over then-No. 1 Boston College and then-No.10 Boston University, Grumet-Morris has been nothing less than the unwavering force behind the Crimson in this early stretch of the season. Even in his team’s losses, Grumet-Morris amassed 101 saves.

But the fact remains that this is, indeed, Grumet-Morris’s last season in a Harvard sweater, and there always remains that nagging, unavoidable glimpse forward that begs the question, “What about next year?”

A team loses a top forward or defenseman, and it hurts—but there are still dozens more ready to refigure and reformat and rework the systems until the squad finds a way to fill the void. It smarts, but it also happens often, if only because of sheer numbers.

As for a star goalie—well, he’s one player, on the ice for every minute of every contest in which he can stand, constantly calling to his teammates and conducting their actions as best he can from beneath dozens of pounds of cumbersome padding. A goaltender on which you can blindly rely—about whom you can say, “for the rest of the season, I’m not going to worry about our end of the ice”—is far from easily replaceable.

Which makes the recent twin performances of Justin Tobe, a sophomore transfer from Michigan State, all the more important. Though it remains entirely premature to deem Tobe “the next Dov,” the incoming netminder has impressed in recent weeks, earning a pair of wins in as many starts and racking up 52 saves between the two contests.

Tobe’s presence is crucial for several reasons. First, it gives the team, and particularly Donato, some flexibility. On Saturday night, as the Crimson prepared for its second of three games in five days—the last of which, tomorrow, comes against red-hot No. 11 Vermont—the coach was able to rest Grumet-Morris.

“With us playing three games in five nights, it was a little bit of an easy decision,” Donato said of giving Tobe the nod.

After the sophomore’s strong Thanksgiving weekend showing against Clarkson, and after all of Tobe’s strong practices and listening and learning and hard work, said Donato, “quite honestly, he’s earned it.”

Against the Engineers on Saturday, Tobe single-handedly saved his team’s lead, first batting a puck out of the air with his stick as he lay on his back in the crease and then later, as his team nursed a one-goal lead in the waning minutes of the game, producing a phenomenal pad save with lightning-fast reflexes.

“Just another save,” Tobe explained modestly. “You’ve got to make those sometimes.”

He later added, “I expect that kind of performance out of me...The goalie’s always got to play well for the team to win.”

And Tobe had better expect that kind of performance from himself, for Harvard fans have been spoiled of late. It has become easy for the casual fan to assume, based on Grumet-Morris’s showings over the past 13 months, that only one or two goals should ever be allowed in a contest.

And Tobe knew exactly what he was getting himself into when he chose the Crimson.

After one disappointing year at Michigan State, Tobe spent the next season with the USHL’s Danville Wings, the same program for which Grumet-Morris had once skated.

“Obviously, I got a lot about Dov from playing in the same junior organization,” the sophomore explained, “and the coaching staff there had good things to say about him. Everything you hear about Dov is positive.”

After a year with the Wings, in which Tobe played 53 regular season games for a total of 3039:28 with a 2.76 goals against average, he packed his bags and moved to Cambridge to join Grumet-Morris, completing, with junior John Daigneau, the team’s trio of goaltenders. There was no question, when the sophomore arrived, that Grumet-Morris had cemented the starting job. No question whatsoever.

“You come in with a guy who’s been playing for two and a half years now, and he’s done a good job, so you can’t expect to just walk in and take his job,” Tobe admitted in October. “He’ll be there—he’ll be playing.”

Instead, the newcomer had proposed, “I don’t want to lay out exact [plans]—play this many games, do this or do that. But I just want to go out, work hard in practice every day, and hopefully get a chance from the coaching staff to play. That’s really all I could ask for.”

But now, Tobe’s gotten his chance—two of them, in fact—and he’s made the most of both. Said captain Noah Welch after the sophomore’s first start against Clarkson, “Tobe stepping in tonight is proof to us that we have three legit goalies that can play.”

“It’s good,” Welch said, “especially as a defenseman, knowing that the guy behind you is going to make that save.”

It’s good for the fans, too, to know that next year, when Grumet-Morris is long-gone, Harvard won’t have to start all over.

And it’s good for Donato—and Grumet-Morris, for that matter—to know that the senior starter can get a night’s rest when the occasion calls for it.

Right now, the situation in the Crimson crease is all-around good.

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Seesel can be reached at seesel@fas.harvard.edu.

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